U.S. President Donald Trump is ordering the creation of a national database of police officers who use excessive force and offering financial incentives to police departments to curb the use of chokeholds as part of an executive order spurred by protests against the death of George Floyd.
Mr. Trump’s order comes the same week that Congress is headed for a standoff over a Democratic legislative package that would enact significantly more sweeping changes, including overturning laws that protect police from lawsuits and putting in place more strident rules on the use of force.
The reform efforts are part of a scramble by policy makers to respond to the most widespread anti-racism protests in the United States since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. The calls for action started last month, when Mr. Floyd, who is Black, died after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Mr. Trump met Tuesday at the White House with the families of several unarmed Black people killed by police and vigilantes. But at the subsequent signing ceremony for the order, the President surrounded himself with police officials, derided protesters for causing “violence and destruction” and accused people who want to cut funding to the police of fomenting “anarchy.” Mr. Trump said there is only a “very tiny” number of bad police officers. He did not make a single reference to police brutality or racism.
“I strongly oppose the radical and dangerous efforts to defund, dismantle and dissolve our police departments,” he said. “Americans want law and order. … Some of them don’t even know that’s what they want, but that’s what they want.”
The President’s order directs Attorney-General Bill Barr to give federal funds to state and local police departments that ban chokeholds in most situations, and to provide de-escalation training. The order will create a database of incidents involving “excessive use of force” so police departments can see whether officers applying for jobs have previously been involved in brutality cases. The order does not contain any measures combatting racial bias or other forms of discrimination.
Critics and experts said Mr. Trump’s order will do little because it only encourages limited, voluntary changes rather than mandating major reforms.
Ed Chung, a former prosecutor and an expert on criminal-justice reform, said Mr. Trump’s actions merely pay police departments to make changes that they could be making regardless.
“I don’t see anything throughout the executive order that meaningfully compels law enforcement to do anything," said Mr. Chung of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.
Mr. Chung pointed out that Mr. Trump has previously rolled back other police accountability efforts. In 2017, for instance, he shut down a program run by the previous Obama administration that allowed the federal Justice Department to impose reforms on troubled police departments.
Janice Iwama, a criminology professor at American University, said reforms will only work if there are consequences for officers who break the rules and police departments that fail to implement accountability measures.
“It’s very hard to hold these agencies accountable unless you say ‘If you don’t do this, we will reduce your budget; we will eliminate the police department,’” she said.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is expected to pass its own reform bill next week. The Justice in Policing Act would ban chokeholds and restrict the use of deadly force; curtail “no-knock warrants”; and roll back “qualified immunity,” which currently allows police to dodge legal liability for misconduct.
The legislation, however, is unlikely to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator, is expected to release a rival accountability bill Wednesday that will not touch qualified immunity or stop no-knock warrants. The developments set up a legislative battle between the two parties and their respective houses of Congress.
“It’s basically typical Democratic overreach to try to control everything in Washington,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the House legislation. “We have no interest in that.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in turn, said Mr. Trump’s actions were not enough. “During this moment of national anguish, we must insist on bold change, not meekly surrender to the bare minimum,” she said in a statement.
Kendall Thomas, an expert in constitutional and human-rights law at Columbia University, said it was telling that Mr. Trump signed the executive order alongside a group of police officers but not the families of Black people killed by police with whom he had earlier met. A better tack for reform, he said, would be tackling social issues in low-income and racialized communities, such as by boosting education, health care and housing, rather than just sending in more police.
“The Trump administration is not interested in ending punitive policing, but making it more palatable,” Prof. Thomas said. “The whole focus of these incremental reforms is on trying to preserve a status quo in which we rely on the use of force to control communities, rather than investing the money and material resources that would make those communities safe and secure.”
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