What the Trump Administration Needs to Know about Law Enforcement

On Inauguration Day, the White House website underwent a drastic renovation. Pages on topics like climate change, health care, LGBTI rights, and civil rights vanished completely. In their place, the incoming Trump administration posted a series of position statements setting forth its vision of governance for the next four years.

Visitors to whitehouse.gov will no longer see a page on criminal justice reform—instead, they will find an issue statement titled “Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community.” This document outlines an approach to law enforcement policy that threatens to undo critically important efforts to rebuild relationships between police and communities, and promote fair and effective policing for all American communities. The statement suggests that the Trump administration doesn’t care about important civil rights issues—and doesn’t understand how community safety and effective law enforcement actually work.

Here are four key problems with the Trump administration’s approach to law enforcement:

1. Increasing gun ownership will not support law enforcement or keep police officers safe.

The statement claims that “supporting law enforcement means supporting our citizens’ ability to protect themselves”—by expanding access to firearms. Not only is this proposal detached from the reality of gun violence in America, it contradicts what many major-city law enforcement leaders want.

At the 2015 summit of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, police chiefs from cities that recorded rises in homicides, including places like Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia, recommended more stringent gun laws. Furthermore, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, law enforcement officer homicide rates were three times higher in states with high firearm ownership—and more than 90 percent of officers who die by homicide are killed by guns.

Moreover, only a very small percentage of gun deaths actually involve self-defense. The FBI’s own data says that 8,124 homicides were committed with a firearm in 2014, and of these, only 442—or five percent—were considered “justifiable” homicides, a rate that has remained the same for the last six years.

Increased gun ownership will make gun violence more common and law enforcement more dangerous.

2. Requiring local police to enforce immigration controls will undermine support for law enforcement.

The statement also takes a harsh position on immigration enforcement, promising both a border wall and an end to sanctuary cities. But some police chiefs and sheriffs around the country have publicly opposed proposals that require them to enforce federal immigration law.

In 2015, the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force sent a letter to the U.S. Congress stating its oppositionto: (1) proposals that impose federal immigration enforcement responsibilities on local law enforcement, (2) proposals that undermine community policing, and (3) proposals that threaten crucial law enforcement grants.

Making local police responsible for immigration enforcement creates additional, unnecessary burdens on their time and makes their job harder. Moreover, it undermines community safety by making immigrant communities less likely to report crimes and cooperate with law enforcement.

3. Scapegoating immigrants will not solve the opioid epidemic—but innovative policing can help.

The statement’s only reference to the opioid epidemic in the United States is a claim that repressive immigration enforcement will “stop drugs from pouring into our communities.” But scapegoating immigrants will not help us understand the problems of substance misuse and addiction or develop effective responses.

The administration should be supporting and investing in real solutions. It can begin by looking at innovative policies like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which has been shown to lower recidivism, decrease the costs associated with drug enforcement, and provide constructive, harm reduction–based support to people struggling with substance misuse or addiction.

4. Dismissing reform advocates will only harm relationships between police and communities.

Finally, the statement rejects the urgent mass call for police reform, especially from black communities, and the important national conversations that have resulted from this movement. Instead, it equates activists with “the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.” The statement creates a false dichotomy between advocates for criminal justice reform and parents who want their kids to be able to walk the streets safely—when many American parents are calling for these reforms precisely because they want their children to be safe.

True community safety is not possible unless policing is responsible, fair, and just. This polarizing approach threatens to undo the difficult work and progress of the past few years—and hints at a future path that will ultimately undermine community support for law enforcement. The communities closest to the problems also stand closest to the solutions. If the Trump administration is sincere about wanting to support law enforcement, keep communities safe, and be a government of and for the people, it must commit to dialogue.

For the most part, policing in America takes place at a local level. It is still possible for cities, counties, and states to develop and pursue policy approaches that support both police and the communities they serve. However, given the coming challenges at the federal level, we have to build on this local momentum to make an impact across the country.

For instance, the Trump administration has already threatened to cut critical funding for Community Oriented Policing Services and the Department of Justice’s Violence against Women grants. President Trump also just signed an executive order threatening to cut federal funding to local police departments that don’t fall in line with his administration’s position on immigration.

If the Trump administration actually follows the path laid out in this statement, it won’t really be standing up for law enforcement. We need policymakers and advocates who will—by committing to ensuring justice and safety for both police and the communities they serve.

*Originally published by OSF Voices on January 27, 2017. Written with Leonard Noisette.


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