President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order on police reform in the wake of protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, the unarmed man killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
“Americans know the truth,” the president said in a speech early Tuesday afternoon. “Without police there is chaos, without law there is anarchy, and without safety there is catastrophe.”
Trump’s executive order has three components: using financial incentives to encourage that officers are trained and credentialed in the proper use of force, compiling a national database of police officers with multiple misconduct claims, and forming co-responder programs between police departments and social workers and medical professionals to better address issues like addiction and homelessness. It would also ban chokeholds unless the officer’s life is at risk.
“This reform is very impactful because it’s all focused on community policing,” a senior Trump administration official said on a Monday call with members of the press, noting that the administration also hopes to encourage states and localities to recruit more police officers from the communities in which they serve. “We know that, in certain areas, the police have been dis-incentivized to stay in the car and not walk the beat, and that’s made communities less safe. And so what we want to do is thread the needle on having more cops, community police, but at the same time, build trust with the community.”
The executive order does not address issues like qualified immunity and police unions, which largely shield police officers from accountability.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called ending qualified immunity a “non-starter” after Attorney General Bill Barr expressed his disdain for the idea. The legal doctrine protects government officials from being sued over rights violations if the scenario in which the officials violated a person’s rights was not outlined with razor-like precision by a preexisting court precedent. Theoretically, it safeguards civil servants from silly lawsuits. As a practical matter, however, it has protected a host of abusive conduct from civil litigation, such as stealing, shooting a child, siccing a dog on a surrendered suspect, and assaulting and arresting a man for standing outside of his own house.
Police unions have similarly come under fire as institutions that protect cops at the expense of the people that they swear to protect and serve. Consider the case of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by former New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Garner’s last words, captured on video, were, “I can’t breathe.”
The city’s police union chose not to condemn Pantaleo’s actions, which were ruled to be a violation of protocol by a police administrative judge, but instead defended Pantaleo, calling the ruling against him a sad result of “anti-police extremists.”
A senior Trump administration official said on yesterday’s press call that issues of accountability will be solved with the credentialing aspect of Trump’s executive order. “I mean, there’s so many different police departments around the country that could’ve done a better job if they just took the time on the front end with doing the credentialing,” the official said. “We’re, of course, going to put some incentive in place by rewarding police officers and police departments that do the right thing. But we think there is certainly some accountability from local leaders to help us do this.”
The White House’s reform package comes as several police reform bills also float around Congress. Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.) introduced the Ending Qualified Immunity Act with Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D–Mass.), a bill which has gained tripartisan support in the House of Representatives. House Democrats unveiled their own bill that would end qualified immunity, ban police chokeholds, prohibit no-knock raids in drug cases, curtail the transfer of military equipment to state and local police departments, and require bias training for departments that want to receive federal funds. And Senate Republicans have their own legislation in the works. That bill looks much like Trump’s executive order, as it emphasizes training police officers in de-escalation tactics, reporting incidents of police violence to the Department of Justice, and restricting the use of chokeholds.