“This is a big step,” President Donald Trump said of the executive order he signed this week holding police officers to higher standards when they use force.
Some police chiefs and reform advocates described it similarly: as a first step, a starting point, by the Trump administration in response to the street protests that followed the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
But the unrest, still roiling the country, is about much more than the death of a Black man under the knee of a white police officer. It has ignited a national reckoning on police brutality against African Americans, on discrimination within the criminal justice system and on the racism ingrained in American society.
Which is why Trump’s announcement seemed paltry to many experts.
“The widespread public demonstrations demand a call for transformational change, and this executive order offers us breadcrumbs,” said Alexis Hoag, a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer who lectures at Columbia Law School.
The country has been here before. Six years ago, the killing of Michael Brown, a Black teen, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited a movement to change the way police treated minority communities. The time since has been filled with significant but incremental changes, from anti-bias training to the adoption of body cameras to the curtailment of stop-and-frisk practices.
And yet the number of people killed by police has not changed. Neither has Black Americans’ distrust of police, or their experience with a criminal justice system that is stacked against them.
This time, activists want more.
Instead of reform programs that funnel training and equipment to police, they want the government to cut off funding. They want the money to go instead to projects that serve the homeless, mentally ill and drug addicts who are often the targets of police force. Some have called for gutting police budgets — or, as in the case of the Minneapolis City Council, the elimination of departments entirely.
While local governments largely control police departments, activists and reformers say that the federal government can play a bigger role. Their ideas for federal action include withholding grants from recalcitrant police departments, reinstituting curbs on surplus military equipment, restarting investigations of systemic misconduct, challenging legal protections for officers who use excessive force — and seeking new technologies that could prevent shootings.
The president is key to this work, activists say. They note that after Brown’s fatal shooting in 2014, President Barack Obama convened a task force that suggested dozens of things police departments could do to earn the public’s trust and had the Department of Justice investigate police departments for systemic abuses.
Trump has ignored or reversed his predecessor’s actions and has largely resisted police reforms. His answer to the new calls for change came Tuesday, first in a private meeting with the families of Black men killed by police, then at a White House event announcing the executive order. Rejecting ideas to “defund” police as “radical and dangerous,” he outlined programs designed to hold police to higher standards of accountability and transparency.
He also promised them more resources: grant money for departments that met new national accreditation standards for use of force — including a ban on chokeholds, except when the officer believes his or her life is in danger; a federal database to track problem officers; more support for officers who deal with the homeless, the mentally ill and drug addicts, along with the social workers to help officers navigate those encounters.
“This is a big, big step. A step that hasn’t been taken before,” Trump said. “But in order to make real progress on public safety, we have to break old patterns of failure.”
Current and former police executives, along with the national Fraternal Order of Police, said the measures were sensible and could lead to improvements. (Police unions, including branches of the Fraternal Order of Police, have historically opposed efforts to curb police misconduct.) Some reform advocates struck a positive tone, though they said it remained unclear how the new accreditation system and federal database would work.
“Things need to start somewhere,” said Laurie Robinson, who co-chaired Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Referring to Trump, she said, “One of the things we’d hoped for is presidential leadership, and that’s why his stepping out on these issues may be really helpful.”
Inimai Chettiar, the legislative and policy director of the Justice Action Network, which mobilizes Republicans and Democrats to reform the justice system, said the executive order, while “modest,” was “a good first step,” particularly from Trump.
“Having at the very least a message from the president that something is wrong in policing and needs reform is itself incredibly important,” she said.
But civil rights activists and scholars said incremental action is no longer what America needs.
“The idea that we can train and certify our way out of this problem is, I think, delusional,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color Of Change, a nonprofit that advocates for racial justice. “The core of the problem is we’re overdoing it when it comes to policing. We have tried to use policing to solve every social issue, especially in Black communities, and this is just another instance of that failed strategy being applied once again.”
The president could recommit the Justice Department to investigating systemic police misconduct, Roberts said. He could give more money to programs that focus on education and economic opportunity in heavily policed communities. He could push Congress to pass a sweeping reform bill.
And he could talk publicly about racial disparities in policing.
“You can’t deal with the problem of policing if you’re afraid to say it’s a problem of racial inequality,” Roberts said.
Hoag added to the list of moves Trump could make: ending a program that delivers excess military equipment to police, and pushing for the elimination of “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits.
She, too, wants the president to lead a national conversation about race.
“Until the president gets out in front of that conversation and helps facilitate that awareness, these cosmetic changes are not going to address the root problem,” Hoag said.
Jim Bueermann is not an activist; he is a retired Redlands, California, police chief who used to run the National Police Foundation and is trying to come up with new ways to guide his former profession into the future. He thinks Trump could use grants better by sanctioning departments that don’t adhere to reforms, and he advocates a “narrowing” of police duties so that armed officers don’t respond to people suffering from mental illness or homelessness. But Bueermann has a bigger idea: a “moonshot” initiative aimed at ending police killings.
Data collected by organizations that track such killings show that their numbers have not budged despite years of reforms.
Bueermann would like to see Trump announce an effort to rally American resources to develop a device that will allow police to incapacitate people without hurting them. Kind of like a more effective, safer Taser, but also like the phasers used in “Star Trek.”
“We have the raw materials and knowledge to do this, but only if we bring people together with an all-hands-on-deck approach and laser focus on this one thing,” he said. “We have to solve this one thing — police have to stop killing people. If we don’t do that, we will continue to tear this country apart.”