Trump police executive order seeks to limit chokeholds

President Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order on police reform amid a broad national debate sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has itself led to heightened calls to address racial justice issues in the United States.

The order amounted to Trump’s most concrete action to date after he faced criticism for failing to address underlying causes of racial inequality and police brutality. 

The measure prioritizes federal funding for police departments that embrace de-escalation tactics, including a ban on chokeholds outside of instances where an officer’s life is in danger, and improves the government’s ability to track officers with a history of excessive force complaints.

Experts and advocates for policing reform viewed the order as a welcome first step but emphasized that ongoing negotiations in Congress will ultimately be the key to enacting more meaningful changes. The order fell short of demands from Black Lives Matter and other activists, who have called for deep funding cuts to police departments. 

“There has to be some more accountability measures, but today was really about incentives for law enforcement to start developing these programs,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network.

Harris expressed optimism that federal funding to encourage the creation of co-responder programs would help law enforcement collaborate with social workers and others more equipped to deal with mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

Laurie Woods, a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt University, described the order as virtually impossible for the federal government to enforce given the sheer amount of data that would need to be collected from local police departments in order to ensure they are meeting standards of training. 

“It’s going to be an added level of bureaucracy,” Woods, a former law enforcement officer, said. “In reality, I don’t see how it will work.” 

The president’s executive order coincides with ongoing negotiations in Congress for police reform legislation. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is spearheading the effort for Senate Republicans, is expected to introduce his bill on Wednesday.

Scott told reporters on Monday night that his bill would restrict funds to state and local law enforcement departments that don’t have a ban on the use of chokeholds. The bill would also increase funding for police body cameras and penalize not wearing them by reducing grants.

House Democrats have unveiled their own expansive bill that would restrict the use of no-knock warrants and overhaul qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects police officers from lawsuits, though Republicans and the White House have called the latter a non-starter. Most Democrats dismissed Tuesday’s executive order as insufficient.

“The executive order lacks meaningful, mandatory accountability measures to end misconduct. During this moment of national anguish, we must insist on bold change, not meekly surrender to the bare minimum,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

Trump has largely avoided speaking about issues like systemic racism or broader issues of police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s killing. He met prior to Tuesday’s Rose Garden address with the families of individuals killed by police, including relatives of Botham Jean and Cameron Lamb. The family members did not attend the Rose Garden event, however, which was populated by Republican lawmakers and law enforcement officials.

Ja’Ron Smith, deputy assistant to the president who worked on the executive order, told reporters later Tuesday that it was a “mutual decision” not to have the families present. 

“It really wasn’t about doing a photo opportunity. We wanted the opportunity to really hear from the families and protect them,” Smith said.

Trump sought to deliver a message of unity and healing in his remarks, after enduring criticism for his rhetoric on the nationwide demonstrations. As he spoke, Trump stood in roughly the same spot he did two weeks prior after law enforcement aggressively cleared protesters from Lafayette Square, a moment that, along with the ensuing scrutiny, has encapsulated his administration’s handling of the protests. 

“What is needed now is not more stoking of fear and division. We need to bring law enforcement and communities closer together, not to drive them apart,” Trump said. 

The president’s remarks announcing the executive order drifted off track periodically and took on an overtly political tone at times.

Trump touted his accomplishments for the African American community, as he has done in past speeches, and swiped at former President Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, for not taking stronger action on police reform, saying “they had no idea how to do it.” 

However, the Justice Department under the Trump administration in 2017 rolled back an Obama-era program established to reform police departments following police shootings and other incidents. 

The president sought to balance his effort to encourage policing reform with his long-standing support for law enforcement and his repeated calls for “law and order” amid nationwide protests. He chastised unruly protesters as “looters” without a cause, decried efforts among some liberal lawmakers and activists to “defund the police” and praised officers for their courage.

“I think the speech had elements in it that were not good,” Van Jones, who worked with the Trump administration on criminal justice reform legislation, said Tuesday on CNN. “But the executive order is pointing in the right direction. We need to keep pushing forward to get more and more done.”

Others, however, said the president’s order was not significant and that more comprehensive reform is necessary.

“We are at a moment when incremental change, whether it comes from the White House or from Congress, is inadequate,” said Kendall Thomas, a Columbia Law professor with expertise in human rights, policing and constitutional law. “We need comprehensive change, and a photo-op with law enforcement officers in the Rose Garden is meaningless without a fundamental transformation in the way we think about the role of the police and policing.”

Updated at 5:02 p.m.  

Tags Barack Obama Chokeholds Defunding police Donald Trump George Floyd protests Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi police reform Tim Scott

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