Joe Biden rejects calls to defund police, faces challenge as reform push grows

"No, I don't support defunding the police," he said Monday.

While former Vice President Joe Biden has firmly rejected the calls to "defund the police," the challenge remains for him to both lead a national conversation around criminal justice reform and confront the skepticism of his record on the issue that some within his own party still hold.

"No, I don't support defunding the police. I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness," Biden said Monday in an interview with CBS News.

The answer was a strong rebuttal of an idea that has not gained traction with most Democratic elected officials, but has become a rallying cry for activists seeking fundamental change to the nation's policing system in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pushed his knee onto his neck for more than eight minutes.

Over the weekend, the Minneapolis City Council announced their intention to defund and dismantle the city's police department in the wake of Floyd's death, in one of the most prominent reform efforts underway.

When Biden visited privately with Floyd's family in Houston on Monday, he had not yet directly address the calls by some to "defund the police," but his campaign did release a statement Monday via a spokesman that declared his position.

"As his criminal justice proposal made clear months ago, Vice President Biden does not believe that police should be defunded. He hears and shares the deep grief and frustration of those calling out for change, and is driven to ensure that justice is done and that we put a stop to this terrible pain," Biden spokesman Andrew Bates wrote Monday.

But beyond the defunding conversation lies the more difficult task of satiating a groundswell of support for tangible changes to the nation's policing system, and an American public that increasingly believes Floyd's death was not an isolated incident, but part of a systemic failure that African-Americans and other minority communities have borne the brunt of.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted last week showed a more than 30-point increase in the belief that recent events reflect a broader issue over racial injustice compared to an ABC News/Washington Post poll from December 2014 that was conducted four months after the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year black man, by a white cop, and five months after the death of Eric Garner, a black man, who died after being put in a chokehold by a white officer.

Biden's campaign has pointed to a pledge made in the candidate's criminal justice reform plan that calls for an additional $300 million in funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services (or COPS) program, along with greater investments for "public schools, summer programs, and mental health and substance abuse treatment separate from funding for policing," as part of Biden's focus for policing reform.

While the steadfast calls for reform to the nation's policing system have found sustained energy both in the form of protests and newly released legislation from congressional Democrats, they have also renewed some criticism of Biden's record and past comments on law enforcement practices.

Throughout the Democratic primary, Biden faced intense scrutiny for his work on the 1994 Crime Bill, which has been criticized as contributing to mass incarceration in the United States, and had disproportionate impacts on minority communities.

The former vice president has consistently defended his work on the bill, but has said he disagrees with specific provisions within it such as the institution of mandatory minimums for certain drug related offenses.

"I haven't always been right. I know we haven't always gotten things right, but I've always tried," Biden said on his work on criminal justice during an MLK day event in 2019, prior to joining the 2020 race.

Still, as Biden clinched the Democratic nomination, the questions about his record on criminal justice have followed, particularly with young voters -- a group Biden struggled to win over in the primary.

Biden's call for policing reform rather than defunding was echoed by fellow Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who argued investments in the community could be a better use of resources that are often heavily allocated for policing.

"To achieve safe and healthy communities, you put more resources into the public education system of those communities into affordable housing, into homeownership, into access to capital for small businesses, access to health care regardless of how much money people have. That's how you achieve safe and healthy communities," Sen. Kamala Harris, a top contender in Biden's vice presidential search, said Monday in an appearance on ABC's "The View."

Another prominent Biden surrogate, Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., a former Orlando police chief and another vice presidential contender, said she views the conversation around policing as an opening to reform policing practices to better serve frustrated, minority-heavy, communities.

"I do believe there is opportunity here for the police and the community to come together and...look at the responsibilities, the things that police are taking on that they were never supposed to take on in the first place, and come up with a better plan," Demings said during an interview on CBS This Morning on Monday.

While the debate around police reform has taken on new intensity in recent weeks, calls to "defund the police," have added a new, often misconstrued, element to the conversation.

"Calls to defund the police run a spectrum of policy proposals, to full on abolition, to divestment of some resources towards more social service and community development types of activity," Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University, told ABC News.

While the former vice president is unlikely to embrace many of the reforms some activists are calling for, his movement to the left on the issue of criminal justice reform mirrors a broader shift that has been taking place in the Democratic Party for decades.

"Joe Biden is probably not [the Democratic nominee] these activists would have wanted, given his support of the '94 Crime Bill, and other kinds of things. But I think we also have to acknowledge that the Democratic Party as a whole has moved to the left on criminal justice issues, and that Joe Biden is also moving left on these issues -- though he's not going to move as far left as perhaps some of the other presidential candidates would have and he's not going to move as far left as some of the activists would like," Gillespie said.

Biden's positioning reflects an acknowledgement that his coalition of liberals, moderate Democrats, Independents who gravitated towards the GOP in 2016 and Trump-wary Republicans, is not a simple one to hold together.

"Vice President Biden is trying to find a middle ground. Because what he is banking on is that there are lots of people who are outraged by the death of George Floyd, there are lots of people who recognize that systemic racism is a problem. But there's a significant cadre of the American public who is actually sympathetic to addressing issues of police brutality, who wouldn't go as far as to abolish police departments," she added.

Other activists and black leaders say now is the time for Biden, who has long had a deep relationship with police groups, to embrace new solutions and address his past stance on the issue of criminal justice.

"The vice president has to, at some point, address his own record, and he's going to have to address it with some new thinking in terms of remedies to what the largest criticism of him has been which is the role that he played in the Crime Bill of '94," Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a political organization that aims to boost black candidates seeking public office, told ABC News.

President Donald Trump's reelection campaign has also consistently sought to drive a wedge between Biden and black voters, and prior to the Democrat's clear rejection of defunding police blasted out several statements on Monday attempting to decry his "silence" on the issue.

But as the debate over police reform intensifies, it appears Biden is indeed taking a similar middle ground, reform-focused approach akin to his handling of the debate that raged during the Democratic primary over whether or not the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, should be abolished.

"We shouldn't abolish ICE, we should reform the system. ICE is not the problem, the policies behind ICE are the problem, and that's easy enough to fix if the president knows what he or she is doing," Biden told reporters last November after filing the paperwork to get his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot.

Asked last week during a town hall with young Americans about Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's decision to re-appropriate $150 million in funding for the city's police department towards programs that benefit communities of color, Biden said it "makes sense" and suggested decisions about police funding should be made based on the needs of specific localities.

"Some places, they're short on having enough people to cover the community. Other police departments have a lot more than they need. So, it depends on the community, but it's all about treating people with dignity, just treating people with dignity, period -- and setting down basic, fundamental rules that relate to what constitutes adequate and fair police conduct," Biden told actor Don Cheadle, who moderated the town hall.

The statement released by his spokesperson on Monday said Biden also supports increased funding to provide bodycams to police officers.

Top congressional Democrats, who unveiled a sweeping police reform package on Monday, have similarly argued for a rebalancing of some of the funding for police towards mental health and policing in schools, and shirked the notion that the conversation should solely focus on defunding police departments.

"This isn't about that, and that should not be the story that leaves here," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill Monday. "Let's not get into these questions that may be from the small minds of some."

A spokesman for Biden said Monday evening that the candidate "fully supports" numerous provisions in the House Democrat's bill, including "banning chokeholds, creating a model use of force standard, giving the Justice Department subpoena power for pattern or practice investigations, taking steps to ensure the independence of prosecutors in cases with police-involved deaths, and mandating state and local law enforcement agencies report force data disaggregated by race, sex, disability, religion, and age."