- President Donald Trump on Tuesday falsely said that former President Barack Obama “never even tried” to reform policing in the US.
- Trump actually rolled back Obama-era policing reforms, including an executive order aimed at demilitarizing law enforcement. Civil-liberties and human-rights groups condemned the move.
- The president’s executive order on policing, unveiled on Tuesday, doesn’t go nearly as far as other proposals in Congress or address protesters’ demands.
- Justin Mazzola, a researcher at Amnesty International, told Insider that Trump’s new order was largely about appearing to do something – without actually accomplishing much.
- The order does not represent “meaningful reform,” Mazzola said, describing it as a “whitewash in order to say the administration ‘did something'” that “doesn’t get to the systemic issues that people are out on the street demanding.”
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As President Donald Trump outlined his executive order on policing in the Rose Garden on Tuesday – in a rambling monologue that was more like one of his campaign rallies than a formal announcement – he falsely claimed that former President Barack Obama didn’t try to reform law enforcement during his tenure.
“President Obama and Vice President Biden never even tried to fix this during their eight-year period,” Trump said. “The reason they didn’t try is because they had no idea how to do it. And it is a complex situation.”
But Trump actually rolled back Obama-era efforts designed to quell police brutality, including an executive order aimed at demilitarizing the police.
In 2014, after a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, people across the US looked on in horror as protesters were met by police officers equipped like soldiers.
Since the 1990s, billions of dollars’ worth of surplus military gear and weapons have been transferred to police departments across the US under the 1033 Program, created by Congress in 1989 as part of the National Defence Authorization Act.
In 2015, Obama signed an executive order banning the transfer of certain military equipment – “tracked armoured vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, ammunition of .50-calibre or higher and some types of camouflage uniforms” – to the police, The Washington Post reported in May 2015.
In August 2017, Trump rolled back this executive order, effectively endorsing the militarization of the police.
“I am here to announce that President Trump is issuing an executive order that will make it easier to protect yourselves and your communities,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at the time. “He is rescinding restrictions from the prior administration that limited your agencies’ ability to get equipment through federal programs, including life-saving gear like Kevlar vests and helmets and first responder and rescue equipment like what they’re using in Texas right now.”
The move sparked fierce criticism from civil-liberties and human-rights groups that have long warned that the militarization of the police increases the likelihood of the use of excessive force.
“We have witnessed firsthand what the continued militarization of our police looks like,” Justin Mazzola, a deputy director of research at Amnesty International USA, told Insider on Tuesday. “Six years after Ferguson, nothing has changed. We saw police in cities across the country greet protesters as if they are the ‘enemy,’ in militarised equipment and vehicles. Rather than opening dialogue with protesters and de-escalating situations, this only raises tensions and makes violence more likely.
“However, Trump’s overturning of President Obama’s executive order on the militarization of law enforcement, which limited and provided better oversight of the 1033 Program, is just but one example of the Trump administration’s rollback of progress,” Mazzola added.
Mazzola cited the termination of consent decrees for police departments found to have violated people’s civil rights, the cessation of engagement in reforms outlined in the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the controversial pardoning of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric, reminiscent of the Richard Nixon era.
Trump says “President Obama and Vice President Biden never even tried to fix this during their eight-year period.”
Obama‘s task force set 59 proposals for police reform and appointed attorneys general who set up consent decrees with police departments, then undermined by Trump. pic.twitter.com/iS407eRlxf
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) June 16, 2020
Mazzola said Trump’s new executive order on policing did not represent “meaningful reform,” describing it as a “whitewash in order to say the administration ‘did something'” but “doesn’t get to the systemic issues that people are out on the street demanding.”
Trump’s executive order on policing is about optics
Trump’s executive order is light on substance and does not go nearly as far as proposals from activists and congressional lawmakers in both parties.
While there is bipartisan support for an outright ban on choke holds, for example, Trump’s order does not embrace that position. “As part of this new credentialing process, choke holds will be banned – except for if an officer’s life is at risk,” Trump said while outlining the order.
The order calls for the creation of a national database to track police misconduct. It also emphasises the need for the increased involvement of mental-health professionals in policing to help deal with nonviolent situations involving issues such as homelessness and addiction.
Additionally, the executive order seeks to use federal grants to incentivise departments to reach certain standards on their use of force.
But the activists who’ve flooded America’s streets following the death of George Floyd have called for much more, including the defunding of police departments and the reallocation of resources to other services. Floyd died as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Trump’s approval rating has tanked amid backlash over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 116,000 Americans, and his controversial response to the protests and unrest over Floyd’s death. The president has condoned the use of force against protesters in Minneapolis, including the deployment of tear gas and other violence by the National Guard, describing it as a “beautiful scene” and saying the National Guard’s actions were “like a knife cutting butter.”
In this context, Trump’s executive order is more about optics than embracing substantive changes.
“I think it is a slap in the face of everyone who’s been out protesting around the world for the past several weeks,” David Henderson, a civil-rights attorney, told CNN on Tuesday.
As Americans demand greater accountability of law enforcement, Trump spent much of his Tuesday remarks offering a full-throated defence of the police.
Trump is “skirting around the edges and pretending to ‘do something'” with this order, Mazzola said, pointing to proposals in Congress such as the Peace Act, which Amnesty International has endorsed, and the recently introduced Justice in Policing Act as more meaningful ways forward that would strike at the heart of the need for systemic reform.
As Trump’s Republican allies in Congress praised the order, Democratic leaders said it didn’t go far enough. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a tweet on Tuesday that it “falls seriously short of what is required to combat the epidemic of racial injustice & police brutality that is murdering Black Americans.”