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By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Citing the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Vice President Joe Biden said Monday that the U.S. needs to “bridge that separation” that exists between law enforcement and communities of color and suggested a return to “genuine community policing” to restore trust between the two.

In a possible preview of recommendations coming from the president’s so-called Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Biden recalled a major component of the 1994 crime bill he wrote was an infusion of billions in federal dollars to help hire 100,000 new police officers through what was known as the COPS program. Funding for that program has dropped by 87 percent since 1998.

“That means fewer cops in the streets, in the neighborhoods, building recognition, trust — seeing one another,” Biden said at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast in Wilmington, Del. “The result — more separation, less communication, more hostility, and a place for crime to thrive in a neighborhood (where there) are decent and honorable people.”

Biden used the holiday speech to discuss the polarizing political issue, presenting himself as a bridge between the two camps by playing up his reputation as a law-and-order politician and his personal connection to the local black community without which, he said, he “wouldn’t have this job.”

“I know when I see the decency and the honor and the dignity that exists in each of the communities of this city, they’re a reflection of the decency all of you represent,” he said. “But through that same period of time I’ve also worked with thousands of honorable women and men wearing a uniform. … And at times I’ve seen in their eyes the uncertainty and fear that comes with being asked to put their lives on the line, them wondering, ‘Who has my back?'”

He said Americans all need to agree on two points: that “cops have a right to go home at night” and that minorities “no matter what the neighborhood, have a right to be treated with respect and with dignity.”

Weeks after he attended a funeral service for one of two New York police officers who were murdered in the line of duty, he noted that both were minorities — and that in fact the city police department is now a majority-minority force.

“They had a humanity that was denied them by an assassin’s bullet, who judged them by the color of the uniform they wore, as Dr. King would say, not by the content of their character,” Biden said.

President Barack Obama formed the policing task force in December in the wake of violent confrontations between law enforcement and individuals protesting the death of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. Its recommendations were to be delivered in 90 days.

In addition to beefing up community policing programs, Biden said the commission was looking at ways to increase diversity in police forces, increase the use of technology like body cameras, and new training methods that would educate officers “how to respond to dangerous situations without inflaming them.”

In his speech Biden made no mention of a law enforcement matter closer, literally, to his home — an incident Saturday night when an individual fired shots at his Delaware residence while driving past on a public street. New Castle County police and the Secret Service are investigating.

Photo: Tony Webster via Flickr

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