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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

U.S. law enforcement tensions roil Joe Biden's tenure with no end in sight

Thomas Webster, a retired NYPD officer, is charged

Thomas Webster, a retired NYPD officer, is charged with attacking a D.C. police officer during the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. Credit: U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York

Contention over how laws are enforced nationwide becomes the dominant theme in the national news of the week.

Security officials testifying at the first congressional hearing on the deadly U.S. Capitol insurrection traded blame but acknowledged they were unprepared for the violence. Failures in the chain of command were bared as expected, and conflicting accounts emerged over requests for National Guard help on Jan. 6. Ex-President Donald Trump denies culpability for creating the lethal scenario with his false insistence that he'd won the election but had it "stolen" from him.

Trump's "back-the-blue" and "law-and-order" incantations during campaign rallies proved especially farcical in White Plains federal court on Tuesday. In a video hearing, retired NYPD Officer Thomas Webster, 54, was arraigned on charges of attacking a D.C. police officer during the Capitol riot with a flagpole that was attached to a Marine Corps flag. Webster was denied bail.

Webster's lawyer said his client went to Washington to protest the election's certification, as urged by Trump, and had acted in self-defense after the D.C. officer punched him. During his 20 years on the job, Webster had helped guard City Hall and Gracie Mansion from within the NYPD Intelligence Division. Webster's presence at the riot illustrated, among other things, the overwrought affection many police and their unions heaped on the former president.

Bigger fault lines than those that have opened over Capitol security crisscross the landscape for President Joe Biden. Like other Democrats, he ran for office expressing sympathy for unarmed Black citizens who died in police encounters, which sometimes prompted violent reaction on the streets of faraway cities.

As preparations got underway for a state homicide trial in George Floyd's death while in Minneapolis police custody, local residents were told to expect more law enforcement officers and National Guard troops in areas damaged during unrest last year. Politicians' heat-of-the-moment pledges to dismantle the police force there so far have amounted to a 4.5% cut in that department's budget.

New witnesses reportedly have been called and a new grand jury impaneled in the federal civil rights probe of former Officer Derek Chauvin, who was videotaped kneeling on Floyd's neck before he died. That process now falls under the aegis of Biden's Justice Department.

Merrick Garland, Biden's nominee for U.S. attorney general, told a Senate confirmation hearing on Monday that he will "do everything in the power of the Justice Department" to stop domestic terrorism. He warned that the Jan. 6 insurrection was "not a one-off" and that the nation faces a more dangerous period than any in recent memory.

Deaths during police intervention, meanwhile, continue to attract perpetual attention. This week, state Attorney General Letitia James announced that no Rochester, New York, police officers will face criminal charges related to the death of Daniel Prude in March 2020.

A nonviolent demonstration in the city followed James' announcement. A grand jury had explored whether police restraint caused the death of Prude, who apparently had been in the throes of a psychotic episode when his brother called 911.

Policymakers will be watching to see if broader day-to-day law-enforcement trends and urban crime spikes continue.

Police recruitment is reportedly difficult amid a flood of retirements, and the coronavirus pandemic causes its own problems. Strategies to deal with "situational awareness" are a hot topic, as are communications and discipline. Whether the change in leadership at the White House has any impact on local law enforcement remains to be seen.