What Trump's Election Means to Police — And Police Reform

Nov 10, 2016
Originally published on November 11, 2016 8:01 pm

Many police officers are warmly welcoming the election of Donald Trump, believing he'll defend against what many officers see as growing anti-police sentiment.

Trump was endorsed by the National Fraternal Order of Police, the largest organization of rank-and-file cops, and Executive Director Jim Pasco says that support was enthusiastic.

"I've seen a level of resolve and commitment on the part of our membership unlike any in some long time," Pasco says.

While departments have a number of practical concerns — such as seeking more federal grants for training and equipment — Pasco says some enthusiasm comes out of officers' sense of being under siege.

"Police officers are not seen with the level of respect and esteem that they might have been in the past," Pasco says.

Throughout his campaign Trump gave them some of that official recognition.

"These are spectacular people — sometimes underappreciated, unfortunately, but we appreciate them, we know what they go through," the president-elect said on Tuesday night.

Just those few words were a high point of the evening for Trump supporter and retired police detective Joe Locus.

"It just shocked me," Locus says. "With all the anti-police rhetoric that's been going around, it was just refreshing. That's what really drew me to Donald Trump in the first place."

Activists for police reform, on the other hand, say Trump's election will reinforce the idea that the criminal justice system doesn't need fixing.

"I think people are trying to figure out what to do next, what it means to organize — in a Trump era, and in a 'post-truth' era," says DeRay Mckesson, a prominent member of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"[Trump] continues to act as if racism is not a real thing in this country," Mckesson says. "It's that worldview, that in practice, in policy, has the potential to have dire consequences for people of color."

Mckesson says he worries that the next administration will pull back on the Justice Department's willingness to investigate civil rights violations by local police departments. The Obama administration made heavy use of the department's power to threaten lawsuits to force departments to reform themselves.

But Pasco says that, under Obama, the Justice Department was too adversarial in the way it used that power against police departments — at least, at first. He says the department conducted a "virtual jihad" against police departments, imposing on them remedies that he calls "mindless and vengeful."

Things have improved significantly in the past few years, he says, as new leadership in the Justice Department Civil Rights Division has shifted to a more collaborative approach.

Nevertheless, those early confrontations left a legacy of resentment among many police officers, who are looking forward to a fresh start with a new administration.

Ultimately, however, presidents have very limited power over police, says John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School who studies the causes of the nation's booming incarceration rate.

"It's important to realize how much criminal justice is a local issue," he says. "While Trump was getting elected, in many states — blue and red alike — were also passing criminal justice reforms, and voting out tough-on-crime DAs."

There also may be enough momentum within individual departments to keep reforms going.

"I know a lot of police chiefs, very progressive-minded police chiefs, who recognize that they need to make some changes in order to keep up with the demands of society," says former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who served as co-chair of the police reform task force set up by President Obama after the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo.

"The issues that really face us aren't going to go away because of an election," he says — a point echoed by Locus, the retired detective.

"That's the one thing that probably some won't admit, is that we do need change," he says.

Locus welcomes body cameras, and he would like to see more standardized training.

"If we're to keep up with the times and not have such a war on police," he says, "we do need to change and be one with the community."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many police officers are warmly welcoming the election of Donald Trump. They believe he'll defend them from what many officers see as growing anti-police sentiment. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on what this may mean for the movement for police reform.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: You get the sense that police officers are starved for official recognition, especially from politicians. For instance, take this moment in Trump's victory speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And law enforcement in New York City - they're here tonight. These are spectacular people, sometimes underappreciated unfortunately. But we appreciate them. We know what they go through.

KASTE: That brief thank you was a highlight of the night for retired police detective Joe Locus.

JOE LOCUS: It just shocked me. You know, with all the anti-police rhetoric that's been going around, it was just refreshing. That's what really drew me to Donald Trump in the first place.

KASTE: In Washington, Jim Pasco is the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Trump.

JIM PASCO: I've seen a level of resolve and commitment on the part of our membership unlike any in some long time.

KASTE: This organization of rank and file cops has some practical considerations here. They're hoping for more federal grants for training and gear, money that they hope President Trump will be more able to coax out of the Republican Congress.

But just as important for them is the sense that the Obama administration was too adversarial, that the Justice Department especially was too quick to come down hard on police departments in need of reform.

PASCO: You've got to create win-win situations or win-win-win. The community leaders, the community at large and the police department all have to be partners in improvement rather than the police departments being victimized by an overzealous Justice Department.

KASTE: But reformers say that DOJ pressure has been crucial to getting departments to change, and they expect that that pressure may now go away. DeRay McKesson is a high-profile activist with Black Lives Matter. He says the next administration will be run by a man who doesn't seem to believe that American policing has a racism problem.

DERAY MCKESSON: And it is that mind view, it's that worldview that in practice, in policy, has the potential to have dire consequences for people of color.

KASTE: At the same time, he says it's hard to know what to expect given how few specifics the candidate laid out.

MCKESSON: I think people are trying to figure out what to do next, what it means to organize in a Trump era and in a post-truth era.

KASTE: A post-truth era - you hear that kind of thing a lot from the reformers who say Trump is selling a distorted version of what's really happening. For instance, his call for an end to the, quote, "war on police." There have been some terrible ambush killings of cops this year, but statistically the job is still much safer than a generation ago. They worry that Trump's version of reality will stifle reform, but John Pfaff isn't so sure.

JOHN PFAFF: It's important to realize how much criminal justice is a local issue.

KASTE: Pfaff is a professor at Fordham Law School who studies America's world-beating incarceration rate. Bringing that rate down is a key goal of the reformers, and they've been making headway at the state level even on Tuesday night.

PFAFF: While Trump was getting elected, in many states, blue and red alike, were also passing criminal justice reform bills - referendums and voting out tough on crime DAs, even administered sort of the tough-on-crime rhetoric that Trump had occasionally used over the course of the campaign.

KASTE: American law enforcement is fundamentally decentralized and local. Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey co-chaired the police reform task force that was created by President Obama after Ferguson. And he says the social pressures for change are not going away just because of this election.

CHARLES RAMSEY: And hopefully police chiefs recognize that, unions recognize that and we can move forward. That doesn't mean there won't be some issues and some people may think that now all that has come to an end, but I think they'd be mistaken if they take that approach.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.