Trump ignores calls for police reforms

Chris Megerian, Noah Bierman
President Trump walks from the White House through Lafayette Park to visit St. John's Church on Monday.  (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

When George Floyd died last week after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down with a knee on his neck, President Trump reacted much as he had in the past when a black person's fatal encounter with law enforcement was caught on video.

He declared himself disturbed by the "terrible thing" that he saw — then offered nothing in terms of policy to address enduring concerns about policing and racism.

"Right now I think the nation needs law and order," Trump told the conservative media outlet Newsmax. "You have a bad group of people out there."

Trump's first instinct is always to look tough rather than make concessions, even when there's a growing recognition across racial lines that black people suffer from racist policing. Apart from supporting a federal civil rights investigation into Floyd's death, the president has offered no proposals for changing how police use force, train new officers or interact with their communities.

“There’s been no signal from the Trump administration that they are interested in doing anything other than photo-op-style events, maybe a listening session or something,” said Scott Roberts, senior criminal justice campaign director for Color of Change, a racial justice nonprofit.

Trump has pledged to crack down on the looting and rioting that has occasionally accompanied peaceful demonstrations, urging governors to "dominate" the streets and threatening to deploy the U.S. military.

His approach has transformed parts of the nation's capital into a garrison, with an ever-expanding security perimeter around the White House and armed troops at many intersections and national landmarks.

Trump faces increasing pressure to act as lawmakers from both parties begin drafting legislation on Capitol Hill, and Floyd's family announced that they're working with civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton to plan a march on Washington in August.

Recent polls indicate more white people recognize that black people are more likely to be treated unfairly by police.

“It seems we have reached a turning point in public opinion where white Americans are realizing that black Americans face risks when dealing with police that they do not," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "They may not agree with the violence of recent protests, but many whites say they understand where that anger is coming from."

The White House appears to recognize that Trump needs to offer some kind of proposal.

"The president believes that most police officers in this country are good, hardworking people, and he notes that," said Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary. "But he also notes some of the injustices we’ve seen and the need to make sure that the appropriate use of force is used and that our officers are trained in that capacity."

Atty. Gen. William Barr acknowledged that racism remains a problem in many police departments.

"It is undeniable that many African Americans lack confidence in our criminal justice system. This must change," he said at a news conference Thursday.

Trump, with his record of racist comments and tweets urging police to crack down on protesters he calls "thugs," is unlikely to take any action that would satisfy activist groups. As much as he wants the protests to end, he's constantly wary of upsetting his base of overwhelmingly white supporters.

"Trump has been in bed with the police unions since his campaign," Roberts said. "I think he shares their values, frankly, and they share his.”

Trump's approach to Floyd's death echoes his comments on Sandra Bland soon after he announced his candidacy in 2015. A black woman, Bland died in a Texas jail cell after she was arrested during a routine motor vehicle stop that was caught on video. Officials said she hanged herself.

"I thought it was terrible, to be honest with you," he told CNN at the time. But Trump hedged when asked whether a person’s race makes a difference in how he or she is treated by law enforcement.

"I hope it doesn't, but it might," he said.

Trump pushed a tough-on-crime message on the campaign trail, tweeting about attacks on police officers and declaring that "we must restore law and order and protect our great law enforcement officers!"

After he was elected, Trump's Justice Department scaled back "pattern and practice" investigations, which are intended to improve policies at local police departments. More than two dozen had been launched by the Obama administration.

"The priorities have shifted," said Laurie Robinson, a criminology professor at George Mason University who co-chaired President Obama's commission on policing. "It sends a signal to local departments that this is not a priority in Washington."

Trump's rhetoric sometimes indicates that abusive police don't need to worry about accountability, such as when he suggested roughing up suspects in a July 2017 speech to law enforcement officers in New York.

"When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, 'Please, don’t be too nice,'" he said.

President Trump suggested during a 2017 speech in New York that police should be "rough" with suspects when they're arrested.  (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Trump also complained that police were held to an unfair standard.

"I have to tell you, you know, the laws are so horrendously stacked against us, because for years and years, they've been made to protect the criminal," he said. "Totally made to protect the criminal. Not the officers. You do something wrong, you're in more jeopardy than they are."

During a 2017 memorial service for law enforcement officers killed on the job, Trump described police as "the thin blue line between civilization and chaos."

“We must end the reckless words of incitement that give rise to danger and violence, and take the time to work with cops, not against them, not obstruct them — which is what we're doing,” Trump said.

When pressed about his record, Trump frequently points to the legislation he championed to reduce prison sentences and create programs to help former inmates rejoin their communities. But he has not addressed issues involving how police do their jobs.

Asked on Fox News radio about black Americans' lack of confidence in law enforcement, Trump conceded only that police "have to get better than what they've been doing."

Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in police training, fears that whatever Trump decides to do will only lead to more deliberations about the problem rather than reform.

"I'm not seeing the transformational changes that need to be introduced," she said. "We are far behind as a democratic country in terms of standards for recruitment, standards and training."