WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump, whose administration has been focused on ending efforts to reform law enforcement, signed an executive order on Tuesday meant to address police brutality.
Trump, who previously endorsed the use of excessive force against handcuffed suspects in a speech before members of law enforcement, issued the edict three weeks after Minneapolis police killed a handcuffed George Floyd, setting off protests that have swayed public opinion on the need to reform police departments.
Reaction from prominent figures in the push for such reform was that Trump’s move fell far short of what is needed.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that Trump “failed to acknowledge racism as a fundamental problem in American policing.”
Vanita Gupta, who headed the attorney general’s civil rights division during the Obama administration, called Trump’s order “woefully inadequate” and a “piecemeal effort that won’t achieve the transformative change needed to heal America.”
The biggest potential real-world impact of Trump’s directive might come from its creation of a database to “coordinate the sharing of information between and among federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement agencies concerning instances of excessive use of force related to law enforcement matters, accounting for applicable privacy and due process rights.”
The order also directs the Department of Justice to “regularly and periodically” compile data on such abuses that would be available to the public but omits names. (As experts have previously told HuffPost, the U.S. is in a “total fog of ignorance” about how excessive force complaints are handled, and the last major federal study of the handling of use-of-force complaints dates back nearly two decades, to 2002.)
Creating a national database would take a Herculean effort by the federal government, and it’s not clear how well it would work without a legislative mandate. The federal government’s prior efforts to track police use-of-force have faced significant delays. Even federal data on inmates who die in custody is years behind and largely useless.
In comments on the order at the White House Rose Garden, Trump said that reducing crime and raising standards “are not opposite goals,” and that the policing standards would be “as high and strong as there is on earth.”
Gupta said in a statement that Trump and his administration “have taken every opportunity to dismantle federal police reform efforts, undercut accountability, and threaten the public with a militarized law enforcement response.” She added, “Let’s be clear: This is an attempt to shift focus from the dangerous rhetoric and policies he has previously promoted.”
Trump insisted that police misconduct is rare, saying that a “very tiny ― I use the word tiny ― it’s a very small percentage” of police who act inappropriately. He also said that the vast majority of other officers want the bad apples removed from their departments.
Romero responded that contrary to Trump’s assertion, “The crisis in American policing is not due to a ‘tiny’ number of ‘bad’ police officers. The unlawful use of excessive force and the absence of any real accountability in police department after police department have led to the wanton killing of Black men and women. The only solution in the face of such systemic racism is a concerted effort to divest funding to police departments and shrink police presence in the everyday lives of communities of color.”
“This executive order will do nothing to change policing on the ground, does not address accountability for police violence and lacks the meaningful changes we need for real reform.”
Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way, called Trump’s speech “offensive, tone-deaf and inadequate.”
“This executive order will do nothing to change policing on the ground, does not address accountability for police violence and lacks the meaningful changes we need for real reform,” Jealous said. “It is a cynical effort to respond to overwhelming political pressure, coming from a president who called for the use of military force on peaceful protesters for a photo op,” a reference to the June 1 incident across the street from the White House.
Some groups saw promise in the executive order.
The Justice Action Network called Trump’s order “a step in the right direction.” It urged Congress “to meet the moment, put people above partisanship, and agree on a broad package of reforms [lawmakers] can send to the president’s desk.”
Trump’s order also instructs Attorney General William Barr to allocate discretionary grants only to law enforcement entities that have sought or are seeking credentials from independent groups that review their protocols.
Randy Petersen, senior researcher at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, called the decree a “good opening move in police reform.”
“It seeks to elevate the accountability of the police to the local community by reallocating already-existing discretionary grant funds, thankfully not further increasing the budget,” he said. “Further, the order seeks to incentivize police departments being more responsive and engaged with their local communities.”
In his Tuesday remarks, Trump claimed ― falsely ― that former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden, his presumed November challenger, “never” tried to fix issues of race and policing. In fact, the Trump administration killed and rolled back the Obama administration’s police reform efforts. The police practices group within the Justice Department’s civil rights division is half the size it was under Obama, and the Trump administration fought to end “pattern-or-practice” investigations that addressed broader problems in police departments.
More than five years ago, when Obama and Biden met with protesters and law enforcement leaders following the fatal shooting of a Black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, to discuss issues of policing and race, Trump tweeted that Obama was “community organizing from the Oval Office” and suggested that discussing such issues at the White House would result in violence. “More riots sure to follow,” Trump wrote.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump said he’d direct his attorney general to investigate the Black Lives Matter movement, which he called a “threat.” On the day of his inauguration, an administration statement vowed to “end” the “dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.”
Trump officials killed a collaborative police reform program run by the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), leaving law enforcement and community leaders in several cities to abandon reform efforts. The administration unsuccessfully tried to scuttle a police reform agreement between the Justice Department and Baltimore, and moved to block a similar deal between the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago after the Justice Department backed out of the largest ever federal probe of a police department.
Although former Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted he hadn’t actually bothered to read any of the Justice Department’s investigations, he described them as anecdotal and worked to curtail the Justice Department’s police reform work throughout his entire tenure, including on the day he was forced the resign.
In spite of all of that history, the Trump campaign claimed that with his executive order, the president “did more in 40 minutes than Joe Biden did in 40 years.”