Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made no secret of his hostility towards movements that have drawn attention to police violence, challenged the confluence of immigration and local law enforcement, and called for meaningful police reform and accountability and reform.
Within his first few weeks in office, Trump issued an executive order (EO) indicating that immigrant communities and undocumented people around the country would continue to be targeted by law enforcement. A few weeks later, he issued three more orders related to law enforcement, outlining his view of the role of the federal government on policing and the prioritizing the protection of officers. And in the last few weeks, news broke that Attorney General Sessions would be conducting a review of all consent decrees in police pattern and practice cases, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) unsuccessfully attempted to further delay finalizing the consent decree on policing in Baltimore.
For over two decades, the DOJ has been authorized to launch pattern and practice investigations of municipal police departments, which expose systemic or widespread constitutional violations, and urge a legally binding agreement or consent decrees to remedy police abuses. As a result, we saw a record number of investigations launched under Obama’s tenure and large scale reform of police departments across the U.S. began.
Of course, activists have never viewed the DOJ’s pattern and practice authority as the sole mechanism for change. Across the country, communities of color have led powerful social movements demanding accountability and an end to police violence. Still, the DOJ’s efforts are one tool for addressing police abuses, and effectively closing this option for recalcitrant police departments still severely limits the mechanisms at our disposal for justice.
Under Trump, the DOJ will attempt to halt the reform agreements underway from being finalized or potentially promote premature and inaccurate views that cities are now in compliance with existing agreements. We can also expect that ongoing DOJ investigations related to individual cases may grind to a halt. And we can be sure this DOJ will refuse to intervene in cities where civil rights violations are rampant.
Trump’s efforts point to the key influence of police unions and law enforcement interest groups. Such efforts are in the same spirit as “Blue Lives Matter” legislation, which criminalize the Movement for Black Lives and other social justice movements while centering law enforcement as victims and putting forward a false narrative suggesting increased attacks against police officers’ lives. Beneath it all is Trump’s longstanding, mistaken belief that violent crime is on the rise and that the police must restore public safety (in fact, crime is not rising and police killings are at a historic low).
Meanwhile, Trump’s actions related to policing exist alongside the insidious and unconstitutional xenophobia, racism, and religious discrimination underpinning two Muslim bans, the deployment of ICE and escalating immigration raids around the country, the threats to defund sanctuary cities, and ICE agents staking out courtrooms and classrooms.
Under Trump, the federal government will not even play a minimal role in upholding people’s rights and protecting against police abuses. This means that current and future struggles for justice are necessarily at the local level.
They may look like the police reform efforts in New York, where CCR, along with our campaign partner, Communities United for Police Reform, and affected community members across the city critiqued abusive stop and frisk practices, along with surveillance of Muslims and political activists, and called for the creation of an independent watchdog (an Inspector General). City Council passed a comprehensive ban on profiling into law – above the objections of the mayor, police commissioner, and police unions (with a historic override vote by the majority of City Council after a Mayoral veto). Activists launched cop watch teams across the city to document police abuse on the streets, and trained thousands of New Yorkers to know their rights during police encounters. At the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), we sued the NYPD for a widespread practice of unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stops and frisks, and secured a joint remedial process to reform stop and frisk that solicits substantive input from directly affected communities as well as other stakeholders. Families of those killed by the NYPD advocated for decades and compelled New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo, to sign an executive order creating a special prosecutor’s office to investigate killings by police. And we continue to support the passage of legislative measures, including the Right to Know Act, which would require NYPD officers to explain why they are stopping someone, identify themselves to the public and document consent to a search. And activists across New York are calling for New York City to stand as a true sanctuary city by ending broken windows policing practices.
This is the nitty gritty of addressing police abuses at the local level. The lessons learned in New York and many other places where communities are leading the fight for justice in innovative, intersectional ways that meet local needs will fill many of the gaps left by the DOJ’s misguided new stance.