President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday outlining White House priorities for police reform, including the creation of a national police misconduct database.
The order also creates new guidelines for use of force and deescalation and proposes an increased role for social workers and mental health professionals in responding to a variety of issues.
While it might be the most federal action taken in response to the nationwide upheaval over the police killing of George Floyd — unless a divided Congress manages to come to some agreement on various proposals — the order is more police-friendly than other potential reforms and falls far short of some protester demands. The “goal of the order was not to demonize police officers,” a senior administration official told Politico’s Nancy Cook, who wrote:
Maintaining the political support of police — and appearing like a law-and-order president — has been a leading imperative for Trump’s top aides and political advisers as some liberal activists push to defund police departments and divert money to community programs.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Trump said he met with the family of Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the families of Antwon Rose Jr. and other victims of fatal police shootings in the process of drawing up the executive order.
“Many of these families lost their loved ones in deadly interactions with police,” Trump said. “To all of the hurting families, I want you to know that all Americans mourned by your side. Your loved ones will not have died in vain.”
The president also discussed a variety of other topics over the course of his rambling remarks, including the status of a coronavirus vaccine, the recent performance of the stock market, and school choice.
The order itself represents a surprising tone shift on the part of Republicans over the last few weeks. Trump previously condemned protests against police brutality by NFL players, and in 2017 he encouraged officers to not be “too nice” to people under arrest.
Trump also took an aggressive line toward the most recent wave of activism around police reform in the US. Since Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis officer three weeks ago, thousands of people have turned out in major cities and small towns alike to protest police brutality and systematic racism — demonstrations which the president has suggested governors should “dominate” by deploying National Guard troops.
Trump’s executive order is less bold than the transformative changes many activists have called for as the antiracism protests following Floyd’s death continue.
Trump’s executive order on police reform, briefly explained
At Tuesday’s signing ceremony, Trump said that the executive order is designed to “[encourage] police departments nationwide to adopt the highest professional standards to serve their communities.” Though police is mostly made at the local level, the order outlines a plan to leverage discretionary grant funding by the Justice Department to implement local reforms. Here are some key details:
Independent credentialing and “proper training”: According to the full text of the executive order released by the White House, discretionary DOJ grants to state and local law enforcement agencies will now be conditioned on whether police departments have obtained (or are in the process of obtaining) credentials certifying that they meet certain training standards. The credentialing process will emphasize use-of-force and deescalation trainings, and department policy must prohibit chokeholds — unless an officer’s life is at risk — in order to meet certification standards.
A misconduct database: The second major provision of the order states that the Justice Department will create a national database to track misconduct by police officers, and that discretionary funding will be available only to those law enforcement agencies that provide the requested information. Additionally, the DOJ will “regularly and periodically make available to the public aggregated and anonymized data from the database.” The policy resembles one proposed by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris earlier this month, though their bill, which also addresses qualified immunity, is unlikely to gain much traction in the upper chamber.
Social services: The executive order also calls for the DOJ and the Health and Human Services Department to work together to create guidelines for “co-responder programs,” which would see social workers respond to issues related to mental health, homelessness, or drug addiction along with law enforcement officers.
Congressional action: Lastly, the order lays out some of the White House’s legislative priorities, which will reportedly be proposed to Congress by the DOJ and the Office of Management and Budget. Priorities include assistance for local police departments in implementing the reforms and training programs outlined in the executive order, among other things.
It’s unclear how effective Tuesday’s executive order will be at reforming policing practices at a local level. According to Emily Owens, a criminology professor at the University of California Irvine, there’s not much data available about what impact police training programs actually have on how officers behave in the field.
“The idea that we’re going to require training programs or encourage or incentivize police departments to start training or doing a different set of training programs, you know, that might help, that might not help,” Owens said. “There’s not an evidence base to say this training program is going to change officer behavior in the field.”
Still, Owens says that creating an incentive system using DOJ grants could work.
“Police agencies and all government agencies respond to incentives,” she said. “So if the federal government sets up a framework where you’re not going to be able to get federal grant funding if you do or do not engage in certain things, that practice historically has changed the way that local criminal justice agencies operate.”
There’s a lot of energy around police reform. It’s not clear what — if anything — that will change at the national level.
As Vox’s Nicole Narea explains, Floyd’s killing and the protests — many of which were met by additional police brutality — have propelled an incredibly rapid shift in public attitudes toward policing.
Polling shows a sudden, seismic shift in public opinion: 57 percent of Americans and 49 percent of white respondents now believe that police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans. In 2014, after Eric Garner died in police custody, only 33 percent of Americans and 26 percent of white respondents said so.
More than two-thirds of Americans believe that Floyd’s killing indicated broader issues in the way police treat black Americans, rather than just an isolated incident. By a two-to-one margin, voters are also more concerned by the actions of police in relation to Floyd’s killing than they are about violent protesters. (The protests have, by and large, been peaceful.)
The result: Calls to “defund the police” have caught on among protesters, and the Minneapolis City Council has pledged to dismantle the city’s police department and “dramatically rethink” its approach to to public safety. House Democrats also introduced a package of police reforms — the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 — last week, which includes an end to the controversial doctrine of qualified immunity, which in many cases shields police officers from lawsuits related to their actions.
But the GOP response in the Senate, where a bill is still in the works, is likely to be even narrower than the Democratic proposal. And while Trump signaled openness to more legislative action during Tuesday’s press conference, it’s unclear what measures the president might support.
One version of a possible deal, as reported by Politico’s Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, could include “eliminating no-knock warrants and codifying some accreditation standard into law. The administration could be talked into passing a law to effectively ban the chokehold altogether, according to sources. But they have drawn the line at limiting qualified immunity.”
In the meantime, House Democrats will forge ahead with their bill. A House Judiciary Committee markup is scheduled for Wednesday, and leadership has indicated it will go to the floor for a vote next week. The bill is expected to pass in the lower chamber, but action in the Senate will likely have to wait until after Congress’s July 4 recess.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.