In 2014, President Barack Obama responded to nationwide demonstrations protesting deadly police violence by commissioning a study on police reform.
In May 2015, the 11-member “Task Force on 21st Century Policing” reported back with a series of six good, detailed policing policies and guidelines aimed at easing the sizzling tension between the police and poor communities of color.
Chief among its recommendations was one focused on seriously building neighborhood trust and support through best-practices community policing. Another called for creating “de-escalation strategies” to decrease confrontations, police violence and officer-involved shootings.
While some leading police managers welcomed the recommendations, they were not well received by the vast majority of America’s police departments. That’s is unfortunate, because it’s clear now that the massive 2014 protests against deadly police violence were only a prelude to worse to come.
We saw that this summer with the assassinations of eight police officers (and the wounding of ten others) by an African-American sniper in Dallas—followed 10 days later by the killing of three Baton Rouge cops and the wounding of three others by a second black sniper. Both assassins were reportedly retaliating for police-killings of unarmed black men.
In the aftermath of one of the most contentious and divisive presidential elections in our nation’s modern history, the momentum begun by the Task Force recommendations is now in doubt—even as it has become crystal clear that what’s now required is a fundamental transformation of the oppressive policing that’s been the profession’s modus operandi over the past 30 years, together with an equally fundamental re-imagining of its mission, officer-selection criteria and training.
In many ways, Donald Trump’s election is about turning back the clock, and it appears likely his administration might kill off many justice reform efforts nationwide.
As a candidate, Trump promised to get “tough-on-crime” (a code word since the 1960s for releasing the cops to “do what they gotta do”).
If he carries out his pledges, it’s hard to see how the approach backed by the Task Force can survive. For instance his vow to renew surveillance of mosques will undermine community policing in Muslim neighborhoods; and his support for stop-question-and-frisk, whereby huge numbers of mostly poor black and brown teenagers are shaken down by police as a routine way of doing business, could breathe new life into one of the strategies most antithetical to police reform.
Of course the federal government can’t mandate the use of stop-and-frisk, but the Justice Department can choose not to slap a consent decree against police departments that are regularly using the tactic. (About which more shortly.)
A further troubling signal about the direction of policing reform came with the announcement Friday that Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was Trump’s nominee for attorney general.
One of the most reactionary members of the Senate, Sessions was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 because of his alleged racism. He supported Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration; and as Alabama AG, he prosecuted civil rights workers trying to register African Americans to vote—alleging voter fraud.
At the annual American Society of Criminology conference in New Orleans last week, several former Justice Department officials raised doubts about whether Sessions would continue the DOJ’s support of community policing through its funding of the office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).
During the campaign, Trump said, “National attention [to police abuse] does not mean national involvement of the federal government,” and that “local issues should remain local.”
That reflects the views of some of the law-and-order advocates who were among his close advisers, most notably former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, until recently mentioned as a prospective Attorney General.
As mayor, one of Giuliani’s signature anti-crime strategies was “stop and frisk,” which he claimed was principally responsible for the city’s plummeting crime rates. Giuliani and his supporters were incensed by a subsequent ruling by a New York judge that parts of the strategy were unconstitutional—and Trump is clearly on their side.
During the campaign, Trump told the International Association of Chiefs of Police that he believed America’s cops could reduce violence by being “very much tougher than they are right now.”
That’s a serious statement.
Like stop-and-frisk, being “tougher” is antithetical to police reform. The very reason cities like Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas and Philadelphia are pursuing pioneering, real, game-changing innovative policing reform is precisely because American policing has been undermined by such tough policing for the past three decades.
Law enforcement has provided the shock troops for the country’s unprecedented, racialized wars on drugs, crime and the nation’s poor.
Those wars have been characterized by a paramilitary mind-set and a mission deeply focused on rigid, massive over-policing and high arrest numbers on the front end; and harsh sentencing and equally massive incarceration by other branches of our criminal justice system on the back end.
The outraged reaction to that kind of policing sparked the enormous nationwide protests of 2014. Led mainly by young African Americans, they were supported by a new, complex and diverse 21st century America comprised of millennials and liberals and civil libertarians of all colors who are now the core of the Democratic Party, a forward-looking black president, and two black attorney generals—in short, the Obama Coalition that delivered to Hillary Clinton more votes for president this year than Donald Trump received.
Given that, going back to the old 1990s style of policing could well portend tumultuous events and even more intense, bitter division as we move into the Trump era.
But perhaps the changes a Trump administration might make will not be so extreme. They might simply slash funding to the philosophical underpinning of reform: community policing.
The Feds and the Cops
As previously mentioned, the federal government doesn’t control local policing. But it does control vital federal dollars to our police agencies—much of it flowing through COPS.
Even if COPS’ funding were threatened, cities like Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, and Philadelphia— where pioneering police chiefs are committed and engaged in reform—might well be able to continue their innovative work.
But many other local departments need the guidance and especially the crucial federal funding flowing from COPS to help implement their reform efforts.
More specifically, should a Trump Administration follow through on his promise to round-up and deport millions of undocumented immigrants, it would almost certainly spell the end of reform and community policing in immigrant and working class Hispanic, Jamaican, African-American, and Muslim communities throughout the nation.
The people in these localities are already wary of the police. Among the most important goals of community policing is changing that situation, and having cops be seen as a positive, legitimate force for good by the people they’re policing.
That process is heavily reliant on developing long-term community-building through the development of personal relationships with neighborhood residents. It’s difficult to imagine, however, that local police can hope to maintain that kind of relationship within immigrant communities if “deportation” task forces of immigration agents surge through their neighborhoods, taking names, checking papers, and rousting and arresting their friends and family.
Last week, at least one prominent police chief — Charlie Beck, the progressive reformer of the Los Angeles Police Department — reacted strongly to that cruel possibility.
“I don’t intend on doing anything different,” Beck told the Los Angeles Times. “We are not going to engage in law enforcement activities based on somebody’s immigration status. We are not going to work in conjunction with Homeland Security on deportation efforts. That is not our job, nor will I make it our job.”
Beck’s outreach to immigrants has been one of the hallmarks of his tenure. And he has both the mayor’s and police commission’s blessing in a liberal LA. It’s highly probable that other sanctuary cities in California and the liberal Northwest will follow Beck’s and LA’s lead in the near future.
But there is one caveat: A Trump administration could make federal funding contingent on their cooperation in assisting in immigration roundups. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for example, is waiting to see what a Trump administration will propose before making any commitments in the future.
Civil Rights Probes in Doubt
In addition, over the past eight years under President Obama, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has been playing a pivotal role in police reform by forcing police department who’ve shown a “pattern and practice” of beatings, reckless shootings and abuse into federal “consent decrees.”
The decrees mandate that the departments implement a series of reforms overseen by a federal judge.
Such decrees have greatly increased under Obama compared to the last Republican Administration led by George W. Bush. No consent decrees, for example, were imposed during Bush’s second term. But by May 2015, as The Marshall Project reported, Obama’s Justice Department had “reached settlements in 15 ‘pattern or practice’ violations by state and local law-enforcement agencies, including eight consent decrees.”
These decrees, it’s important to note, have been extremely effective tools in forcing the most abusive departments to make deep cultural and operational reforms they likely never would have made otherwise.
Under a Trump Administration, a policy guided by the notion that the federal government should stay out of local police affairs could slow or stall that process.
Meanwhile, the most reactionary elements of the police establishment have already hopped aboard a Trump train they hope is rolling backwards. As Jim Pasco, executive director of the 350,000 member Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)— which endorsed Trump— said just after the election: “I’ve seen a level of resolve and commitment on the part of our membership unlike any in some time.”
Pasco also told NPR that [American] police departments are being “victimized by an overzealous Justice Department.”
Obviously, resistance to police reform long predates this election. Much of the resistance to reform within the profession comes from local and state police unions and national associations like the FOP. Through skillful lobbying and threats to label politicians “soft-on-crime,” they have virtually owned our lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and in America’s state houses and city halls for decades.
During the 1980s and 1990s, they successfully promoted harsh law-and-order legislation; fought off civilian oversight attempts to make them more accountable; and ingeniously devised and won due process rights that, as James Surowiecki wrote, “defined [their due process] working conditions in the broadest possible terms; and in so doing made “it hard to investigate misconduct claims and to get rid of officers who break the rules.”
In other words, it is the police who currently have the legal, procedural and political power in the reform battle, not the reformers. They must be led towards reform.
But, united with like-minded allies in a new Trump Justice Department, they could now decimate police reform by reigniting the wars on drugs and crime—because reform cannot coexist with that kind of policing.
They could also simply let reform die by the benign neglect; or by redirecting financial support for community policing to, as Pasco put it, “training or gear.”
Moreover, a Trump White House could also chose to enforce federal marijuana laws under which possession of the sale or purchase or the substance is still a crime – thereby throwing those states who’ve legalized recreational use of the drug—and local police agencies—into chaos.
During the second half of the 20th century and into the present, law enforcement learned all the wrong lessons for policing in the 21th century.
In the process they tainted the values of our police agencies and cops in the field, making what has traditionally been a necessary, sometimes inherently dirty, job even dirtier. And in the process, cops on the beat have become hated by many of the people who are most in need of their protection.
That’s a situation we return to at our own risk.
Joe Domanick is West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report, and Associate Director of the Center onMedia, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in NYC. His book “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing” is now out from Simon & Schuster in paperback. He welcomes comments from readers.