Analysis: Trump’s take on police reform

The President's executive order voices clear support for law enforcement, avoids punitive actions and promises a reasonable review of policing practices

President Donald Trump’s Safe Policing for Safe Communities executive order is one of the few government efforts that voices clear support for law enforcement, avoids punitive actions and promises a reasonable review of law enforcement practice. 

Inaction would be unacceptable

Despite forging a persona of uncompromising policy decisions, the President faces a national tinderbox likely to remain volatile through his upcoming re-election bid. Although it seems unlikely, given his history of intolerance for advisors who disagree with him, some cooler heads may have prevailed to moderate the President’s voice on the issue of police reform.

Law enforcement officials applaud after President Donald Trump signed an executive order on police reform, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Washington.
Law enforcement officials applaud after President Donald Trump signed an executive order on police reform, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In a season of American history where a tweet can light up a city in flames instead of merely headlines on Sunday talk shows, this executive order seems to be calculated to respond to the national concern without overreacting. Cops may hold their nose at the bureaucratic web that will draw attention and resources away from the most immediate needs of most police agencies, but this executive order does no damage to American law enforcement, may have some positive outcomes and was announced from the White House Rose Garden with a positive, supportive message for police officers.

National credentialing

Several national professional organizations have a history of developing the profession of law enforcement. It seems likely that those existing entities will be tapped by the Attorney General in the effort to create more uniform national standards and operational policies.

There are concerns regarding any efforts that tend to nationalize and standardize a profession. American law enforcement has developed very intentionally to be comprised of local agencies with local accountability. Historically even our now widely accepted state agencies were opposed by sheriffs’ organizations and began with narrowly limited powers. Increasing federalization of laws and federal law enforcement agencies, for better or worse, can dilute that local control of resources and priorities.

Standardization establishes standards of care that will be used in both civil and criminal actions against police officers that may usurp policies and procedures developed and adapted from the unique aspects of regional and cultural areas of the country. There will be little incentive to be innovative with creative problem solving among agile agencies faced with the lumbering pace of federal bureaucratic rulemaking.

There is already a lot of copy and paste policy and procedure that has slowly created considerable uniformity in law enforcement. If federally mandated regulation of law enforcement prevails – by design or default – any future change will likely be slowed and encumbered. 

Many agencies will gladly adopt rules written for them, able to shrug their shoulders and say there’s nothing they can do about the policies and procedures since the feds told them to do it that way.

Certified use-of-force policies

Although the language of use-of-force policies may differ from agency to agency, the reality of what happens in arrest control situations is much harder to regulate. The fear of a politicized body of policy is that the realities of life and death dangers faced by police are hard to quantify and constrain. Force events are often disturbing and ugly. Emotional responses to those images that seek to restrict officer discretion without a flexible context can impact citizen, arrestee and officer safety.

The elimination of neck restraints, for example, is considered by many to be a hasty response that takes away a valuable tool from an officer’s options during a violent arrest. There was debate over whether the Rodney King arrest could have been consummated much more quickly with the use of a carotid restraint. After the King event came recommendations for the swarm technique that is now criticized when videos of four or more officers restraining a violent suspect are seen. The order does retain the availability of so-called chokeholds where deadly force is justified.

More training

No one argues against more training, but this executive order provides no promise of funds to keep enough officers on the streets to respond to 911 calls while officers are sitting in the classroom listening to lectures and role-playing in scenarios.

The “more training” mantra is offered as a solution to all things but offers no fundamental change in police education methodologies. A two-year police academy, like many European forces, may need to evolve as a revolutionary response to current police reform demands and may improve long-term recruiting and retention. This would likely occur with the advent of more federalization due to the scope.

Training on handling the mentally ill and working in cooperation with mental health professionals sounds good. It is good. But no one calls 911 because Billy is depressed. They call because Billy is setting fire to something, sawing into his flesh, or running down the street with a butcher knife. Mental health professionals have a protocol for dealing with a violent or threatening person. They dial 911 and ask for the police.

More stats

There is a deficit of information on the use of force, frequently problematic officers and injuries to officers. As burdensome as it is, efforts to collect useful information for policy development and public education must occur. Current academic studies are seldom considered objective and definitive. Anti-police activists will have little interest in any data that conflicts with their preconceptions, but citizens deserve the opportunity to see clear evidence of police restraint and efficiency.

First, do no harm

The order makes no substantive impact on law enforcement and, unlike efforts to remove qualified immunity and other punitive measures, is something police officers can live with. It may also direct reform efforts toward softer responses from legislatures and Congress in the stampede to cater to the most strident voices for change.

NEXT: Reforming law enforcement starts with law enforcement

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