On the campaign trail, Donald Trump declared himself the “law and order candidate,” and said at the Republican convention that “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.”
But can a president have an impact on crime and the local police who fight it? Trump did not offer many specifics on how he would make America safer, such as the promise Bill Clinton made to add 100,000 new officersto the streets in the 1990s, but he has given some indications of how he might act on the issues which have the largest impact on America’s safety.
For example, gun control is an issue a president could push as an attempt to reduce gun violence, but Trump made it clear during the campaign he would not. Though Nevada voters on Tuesday passed a measure requiring background checks on nearly all gun sales, and California outlawed possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines, Trump told both the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police he would not support such changes. “Gun control laws are not the answer to gun violence,” Trump wrote in response to FOP questionnaire. “The Second Amendment is sacrosanct and will in no way be modified in my administration.” He does, however, support tougher penalties for convicted felons found in possession of guns.
Presidents can only have an impact on policing “to a very limited degree,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police officers’ union, which endorsed Trump in September. There are 18,000 police departments which “all operate totally independently of the federal government,” answering to their local governments devising their own police policies and practices, Pasco said. “The only ways in which he really can have an impact are by providing federal funding for training, equipment, task forces and the like. And how he uses the bully pulpit to be supportive of and respectful of law enforcement.”
President Obama used that pulpit to convene a task force on 21st century policing, and to call for improved relations between police and communities. Those relations have become tense in recent years over concerns about fatal police shootings, especially of African American men. American police officers kill nearly 1,000 people per year, according to news media counts, and roughly one-third of those involve people who did not have a gun. A proposal to retrain police officers in deescalationtechniques and to respect the “sanctity of life” of both officers and their subjects has created a deep schism between big city police chiefs who favor the new approach and the national police officers union and small city chiefs who do not.
Trump met with the FOP leaders, who vocally opposed the retraining, and won their endorsement. But the union did not ask him about the deescalation issue in a pre-election questionnaire, and a president likely could not interfere with local police chiefs choosing, or not choosing, to retrain their officers with the “30 Guiding Principles” of deescalation promoted by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum.
“At the end of the day,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, “these issues are ultimately state and local issues. The change is happening at the local level.” He said when PERF rolled out its trainingprograms last month, “We did not meet resistance, people have embraced the training. We’re giving police departments options when they deal with these difficult situations. The challenge is, how do we get that message to 18,000 police agencies? If anything, President Trump could emphasize how important it is for police to get trained in 21st century techniques.”
Pasco said Trump could get involved, “to the extent the federal government was attempting to institutionalize and proselytize these practices. It had its supporters within the federal government and the Justice Department.” He said the FOP didn’t oppose deescalation as a basic tactic, which PERF advocates using for all people not wielding guns, “but it can’t be the only option when you don’t have the time or space to deal with someone, say, with a machete.”
Though police officials, including the Justice Department and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, have called for improved data to determine how many officer-involved shootings are occurring and why, Trump said he was opposed to that. “The federal government,” Trump wrote in response to the IACP’s questionnaire, “should not be in the habit of demanding data from local or state law enforcement organizations.” The FBI already gathers data from local police for its annual national crime statistics. The Justice Department last month announced a new initiative to gather information on police use of force, but Pasco and others said it was flawed because it was voluntary.
When asked about reducing violence, Trump often pivoted to increased immigration enforcement as a way to decrease crime. That makes police chiefs nervous. Police typically prefer to stay away from immigration enforcement because they want residents of any status to both report crime and cooperate with investigations, and to maintain good relations with all communities. “I never heard him talk about involving the local police,” said Thomas Manger, the Montgomery County police chief and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “I hope he understands the problems between immigration and local police.”
Manger said his chiefs support the Priority Enforcement Program launched by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in late 2014, which focuses on deporting immigrants who are gang members, convicted of felonies or multiple misdemeanors or are considered national security threats. “What we’ve got in PEP,” Manger said, “is working well. In our view, it strikes the right balance between getting dangerous criminals out of our communities and not putting local police in the position of being immigration police. Our mission is building community trust.”
Trump also mentioned on several occasions that police should use “stop-and-frisk” techniques to proactively reduce crime. Police in many cities already do that, though departments in New York and Chicago have reduced their use of the technique in response to citizen pushback, and the decisions to do so are strictly local.
Police at both the local and federal levels still devote massive resources to enforcing marijuana laws, although California, Massachusetts and Nevada voters elected to legalize pot on Tuesday. About 20 percent of U.S. citizens may now smoke marijuana legally in seven states and the District, and a Gallup poll in October found 60 percent support nationwide for legalization. But marijuana is still illegal under federal law, equated with heroin and LSD in the most serious class of narcotics. The Obama administration took a mostly hands-off approach to enforcement, but it also did not take any steps to reduce marijuana from Schedule 1, making it very difficult to research its effects scientifically.
Trump told the IACP that marijuana was “a state issue. However, Congress should work to make compatible the laws of the land with the laws of the states.” He also has said he supports medical marijuana. These views could be translated into redirecting law enforcement’s priorities and dollars away from pot toward harder drugs or other issues. But both Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani, top Trump advisers and former U.S. attorneys who could wind up serving in the next administration, have expressed strong opposition to legalizing marijuana even for medicinal purposes.
“I hope this administration stays strong,” Manger said, “in terms of recognizing the harm of drug abuse.” He acknowledged the growing tide toward legalization of marijuana, but noted that “every single jurisdiction that legalized it has seen a steep rise in use by young people, even though it’s still illegal for them. It’s readily available and people use it. It sends the message it’s not harmful, and studies have shown marijuana does hurt young brains while they’re still forming.”
Mental health issues have played a large part in many serious crime rampages across the country for years. Trump told the IACP that “mental health reform is a top priority in my administration.” As a candidate, Trump said he would increase funding for mental health treatment, as well as drug addiction treatment and police training.
Republicans criticized the Obama administration for using executive orders to accomplish what they could not do through legislation. In response to criticism over a program to supply surplus military equipment to local police, Obama established a working group which reduced or removed the availability of some equipment. Trump said he would disband the working group and said the military surplus program was “an excellent program that enhances community safety.”
Police groups, regardless of politics, were encouraged by Trump’s expressions of support for law enforcement. “I like to hear somebody say that,” Manger said. “We understand the public’s concerns about use of force and police training. We are working every day to hire and train the right people, to hold ourselves accountable. But the press and social media have convinced the public that there’s an epidemic of police abuse in this country. That’s simply not true.” He said the chiefs association was hoping to work with the Trump administration on crime and policing issues, and “we are hoping we can shape that agenda to be productive.”