In signing an executive order on policing issues, President Donald Trump falsely claimed former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden “never even tried to fix this during their eight-year period.”
In fact, the Obama administration took several steps to address police violence and community trust issues, some of which the Trump administration has dialed back.
In his June 16 remarks, Trump took a further swipe at Obama and Biden, his Democratic opponent in the 2020 election, adding, “The reason they didn’t try is because they had no idea how to do it.” The Trump administration clearly disagreed with some of the Obama administration measures. But it’s simply wrong for Trump to claim the prior administration didn’t do anything.
The Biden campaign disputed the claim. Deputy Campaign Manager and Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said in a statement that Trump “knows that isn’t true because he has spent the past three years tearing down the very reforms the Obama-Biden Administration pursued.” Bedingfield pointed to three initiatives:
- The Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued recommendations for police departments in a May 2015 report.
- The use of consent decrees to get police departments to enact changes regarding constitutional rights violations.
- Limits on the transfer of military weapons to police departments.
David Alan Sklansky, professor of law and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, told us those are exactly the three initiatives he would cite. “All three of those were significant steps taken to address problems with American policing including but not limited to the use of force and the issue of race in policing,” he said.
Sklansky called Trump’s claim “baseless” and “flat-out false.”
“It’s indisputable that the Obama administration did far more to address this issue than the Trump administration,” he said, adding that the Trump administration has tried to undo the progress the previous administration had made.
Specifically, the Trump administration limited the use of consent decrees and rolled back Obama’s restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to local police departments.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Spencer P. Boyer, of the Brennan Center for Justice, also cited these three measures in a June 16 post titled “What the Federal Government Can Do to Help Fix Policing in America.” They included one more Obama-era effort: the Collaborative Reform Initiative in the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which worked with local law enforcement to evaluate their operations, and recommend and institute changes. That program, too, ended under Trump.
Task Force on 21st Century Policing
On Dec. 18, 2014, Obama signed an executive order to create the Task Force on 21st Century Policing “to strengthen community policing and strengthen trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve,” a White House fact sheet said.
The task force was formed after several violent police incidents involving African Americans, including the 2014 killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. It was chaired by Charles Ramsey, then the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and Laurie Robinson, a professor of criminology and law at George Mason University and a former Justice Department official.
In November and December 2014, grand juries decided not to indict the officers in the Brown and Garner cases. In discussing the task force at the time, Obama said Ferguson, where weeks of protests occurred, exposed “a simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”
The task force issued its final report in May 2015, offering recommendations on issues including building trust, community policing, officer training and officer safety. Sklansky told us the task force was “a very extensive operation that culminated in a very detailed, very thoughtful report with a lot of specific recommendations, many of which had to do with police violence.”
Robinson, in a February article published in the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, said the report “had an impact.” Several law enforcement groups “have embraced the report,” she said, and a think tank researcher said agencies across the country were using it “as their playbook.”
The Brennan Center experts noted that “not nearly enough jurisdictions have heeded the advice” in that report.
But it’s worth noting, as the Washington Post Fact Checker also did, that Trump’s executive order reflected the task force recommendations on a few points.
Trump’s executive order called for the attorney general and secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to “develop opportunities to train law enforcement officers with respect to encounters with individuals suffering from impaired mental health, homelessness, and addiction” and “to increase the capacity of social workers working directly with law enforcement agencies.” The 2015 task force report recommended “multidisciplinary, community team approaches” for “responding to mental health crisis situations” as well as community problems involving “homelessness, substance abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, and child abuse.”
The task force said law enforcement “policies for training on use of force should emphasize de-escalation and alternatives to arrest or summons in situations where appropriate,” while Trump’s executive order said the administration shall propose legislation that would include “training and technical assistance required to adopt and implement improved use-of-force policies and procedures, including scenario-driven de-escalation techniques.”
The Obama administration’s Department of Justice Civil Rights Division conducted “pattern or practice” investigations of police departments focused on whether there were patterns of constitutional rights violations, and then obtained court-enforced consent decrees to get some departments to implement changes.
A Jan. 5, 2017, exit memo by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the DOJ launched 23 such investigations under Obama and “is now enforcing 17 agreements with law enforcement agencies across the country, including 14 consent decrees.” Those investigations focused on the Ferguson Police Department, as well as agencies in Baltimore, Chicago and other cities.
“Consent decrees were a very important initiative to try to bring systemic change to police departments,” addressing all forms of policing including use of force, Sklansky said. The Obama administration “launched more of these investigations than any previous administration.”
But the Trump administration significantly scaled back that effort. Eisen and Boyer write that on the day he left office, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions “signed a memo detailing the narrow circumstances under which DOJ can enter into a consent decree. Since President Trump took office, the Justice Department has publicly announced only one pattern-or-practice investigation into a police department.”
The Nov. 7, 2018, memo said it “provides guidance on the limited circumstances in which such a consent decree may be appropriate; limits the terms for consent decrees and settlement agreements with state and local governmental entities” and “amends the process for the approval of these mechanisms in cases in which they are permissible.”
Sessions had criticized the Baltimore consent decree, an agreement reached near the end of the Obama administration but signed by a federal judge in April 2017. Sessions said he had “grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.”
Obama also signed an executive order to create a working group to limit surplus military equipment and supplies that are provided for free to state and local law enforcement agencies under what’s called the 1033 program.
The administration then adopted the recommendations of the working group, issued in May 2015, creating a “prohibited equipment list” — which included tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers and firearms/ammunition of .50 caliber and above — and a “controlled equipment list” — including wheeled armored vehicles, riot shields and helmets, and explosives. Police departments could still obtain the equipment in the latter group, but they would have to provide justification for needing it and proper training.
We wrote about this issue in 2017 when Sessions misleadingly cited studies to claim Obama “went too far” and undermined public safety.
On Aug. 28, 2017, Trump issued an executive order rescinding Obama’s.
In addition, the Brennan Center experts wrote about the Trump administration’s curtailing of the Collaborative Reform Initiative in the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, saying the program “had widespread support from police chiefs across the country” and allowed the DOJ to work with the cities and avoid litigation.
Sessions scaled back that program in September 2017, saying in a memo, “This is a course correction to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support.”
At the time, the Washington Post reported that Sessions’ decision would affect “about 14 police departments nationwide that had either begun receiving public reports from the COPS office or expected to receive such reports soon.”
In September 2015, the Obama DOJ also announced $23.2 million in grants to 73 local law enforcement agencies to “expand the use of body-worn cameras and explore their impact.”
In her exit memo, Lynch also touted implicit bias training that the DOJ required of all employees and federal law enforcement agencies.
Clearly, Trump was wrong to claim Obama and Biden “never even tried to fix” issues surrounding police brutality and lack of trust between police departments and the communities they serve. Trump may not agree with some of the measures — as evidenced by his eliminating or restricting them — but they were indeed efforts aimed directly at these issues.
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