The president said other efforts at reform go too far.
In the wake of nationwide protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, President Donald Trump signed a police reform executive order Tuesday afternoon geared toward encouraging better police practices. He made no mention, however, of the roiling national debate over racism spawned by police killings of Black people.
Trump met privately with the families of several Black Americans killed in interactions with police before his Rose Garden signing ceremony, and said he grieved for the lives lost and families devastated. But then he quickly shifted his tone and devoted most of his public remarks to a need to respect and support “the brave men and women in blue who police our streets and keep us safe.”
He characterized the officers who have used excessive force as a “tiny” number of outliers among “trustworthy” police ranks.
“Reducing crime and raising standards are not opposite goals,” the president said before signing the order, flanked by police officials.
One of the executive order’s biggest undertakings is setting up a national federal database to track complaints of police officers with multiple cases of misconduct. The goal is that those with a history of abuse won’t be hired elsewhere.
The order also announces federal grants to incentivize local police departments to impose “best practices” and certification standards on use of force, and instructs the Justice Department to push local police departments to be certified by a “reputable independent credentialing body” with use-of-force policies that prohibit the use of chokeholds, except when the use of deadly force is allowed by law. Chokeholds are already largely banned in police departments nationwide.
For some, it’s a step in the right direction, but there are concerns about the cloudy justification of lethal force and definitions of when police are in danger.
“The president’s weak executive order falls sadly and seriously short of what is required to combat the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality that is murdering hundreds of Black Americans,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after Trump’s statement.
Some police reform advocates say the executive order fails to meet the demands of the movement, especially considering the long history of Black Americans feeling distrustful of their local police departments and the strengthening Black Lives Matter protests taking to the streets in the last few weeks.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, called the order “a list of half measures that will not break the cycle of police violence.”
Kristina Roth at Amnesty International USA said the order “amounts to a Band-Aid for a bullet wound.”
Many instead are calling for concrete changes, including punishing police misconduct, outright banning chokeholds, limiting no-knock house warrant orders, and defunding police departments.
While the order suggests Trump is mindful of the calls for change, it could also be viewed as a political move to drum up voter support in an election year. Most Americans want to see major police reform but don’t support the movement to defund police departments. Meanwhile, only 38% of Americans approve of Trump’s current job performance as president.
But Trump said others want to go too far. He framed his plan as an alternative to the “defund the police” movement to fully revamp departments that have emerged from the protests and that he slammed as “radical and dangerous.”
“I strongly oppose the radical and dangerous efforts to defund, dismantle and dissolve our police departments,” the president said Tuesday. “Americans want law and order, they demand law and order.”
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer pointed out: “One modest executive order will not make up for his years of inflammatory rhetoric and policies designed to roll back the progress made in previous years,”
As the senators’ comments suggest, police reform is a relatively progressive action by the “law and order” presidency.”
How Trump’s New Executive Order Stacks Up Against Past Orders
Although the president has historically taken to declaring executive orders instead of working with Congress on legislation—a practice he used to oppose before his presidency—they often ignore widespread cultural and societal shifts in the U.S. to cater to his small base.
For example, most recently, Trump announced a temporary ban on economic migrants traveling to work in the U.S., in an effort to prioritize future new jobs for Americans in today’s coronavirus-induced recession. Although the order did not turn out to be an all-out ban on immigration as initially feared, it does open the door to allow the White House to further formalize who cannot immigrate to the U.S. for work.
Reports say the White House is considering restricting worker visas, including H-1B visas for experienced migrants. However, these restrictions on economic migrants oppose evidence that immigrants overwhelmingly and positively contribute to the U.S. economy—and most Americans support current levels of immigration or expanding it.
Another policy enacted by executive order that garnered much criticism was Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries early in his presidency. Thousands of people gathered at airports to demand the release of people who had been detained while entering the country.
Like Tuesday’s action on police reform, Trump also tried to quell mass uproar in 2018 by issuing a half-hearted executive order to address migrant family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The administration argued the “zero-tolerance” policy was enacted to discourage illegal immigration, and children were separated from their parents to face detention. American voters, however, overwhelmingly frown upon the idea of splitting up families, and in June 2018, the president signed an executive order that ended the practice. His order instead called for whole families to be detained together.
Amid the current conversations about police reform, it’s also important to remember one of the first executive orders Trump signed during his presidency: In February 2017, he signed an order for the protection of U.S. law enforcement.
This reflected the national sentiment at the time, through Pew Research polling, that police officers felt their jobs were dangerous and the public didn’t understand. The same polling discovered that citizens believed accountability of law enforcement was the motivation behind protests—when officers surveyed tended to think it was anti-police bias.
The executive order in 2017 showcases Trump’s long-held support for law enforcement, with a lack of accountability Americans want to see.
That same messaging could be felt in the new order signed Tuesday as critics say it was an empty attempt to meet the demands of the current moment calling for concrete change.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.