Trump signs executive order on policing amid mounting pressure over lethal incidents

Lauren Egan and Julie Tsirkin

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed an executive order on policing Tuesday amid increasing pressure and nationwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other Black people in custody or at the hands of law enforcement officers.

"Today is about pursuing common sense and fighting, fighting for a cause like we seldom get the chance to fight for," Trump said. "We have to find common ground."

Trump said that his executive order would set standards on the use of force "as high and as strong as there is on Earth" and that he would prioritize federal grants to police departments that met those standards.

The order would leverage federal grant money to encourage police departments to meet a set of standards, including a ban on chokeholds except when an officer's life is at risk, the president said. The Supreme Court, however, has already said that under the Constitution, deadly force is allowed only when police officers fear for their own safety or that of others.

The president's order would also create a national database of excessive force complaints and encourage the involvement of mental health professionals when responding to nonviolent cases, like those involving addiction, homelessness and mental illness.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

In his remarks, the president blasted calls from some activists to defund police departments, saying doing so would be antithetical to upholding law and order.

"I strongly oppose the radical and dangerous efforts to defend, dismantle and dissolve our police departments, especially now when we've achieved the lowest recorded crime rates in recent history," Trump said. "Americans know the truth: Without police, there is chaos. Without law, there is anarchy. And without safety, there is catastrophe."

Still, Trump's order fell far short of what activists and lawmakers have been calling for, including calls for outright bans on chokeholds, which led to Floyd's death, and on "no-knock" warrants, as was used in the incident leading up to Taylor's fatal shooting, among other things.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., panned Trump's order as a "modest" action that "will not make up for his years of inflammatory rhetoric and policies designed to roll back the progress made in previous years."

"Unfortunately, this executive order will not deliver the comprehensive meaningful change and accountability in our nation's police departments that Americans are demanding," Schumer said in a statement, demanding that Congress quickly pass legislation to make it easier to hold police officers accountable for abuses and that Trump commit to signing such a measure.

A release from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office said the "discretionary, nonmandatory" approach outlined in Trump's order failed to take "basic steps," like banning racial profiling and doing away with legal barriers that prevent police accountability.

"The president's weak executive order falls sadly and seriously short of what is required to combat the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality that is murdering hundreds of Black Americans," Pelosi, D-Calif., said in the release, adding that Trump's measure "lacks meaningful, mandatory accountability measures to end misconduct."

"During this moment of national anguish, we must insist on bold change, not meekly surrender to the bare minimum," she said.

'I can never imagine your pain'

Trump opened his remarks Tuesday by saying that shortly before the Rose Garden signing he had met with families of several Black people who were recently killed by police, including Botham Jean, Antwon Rose, Jemel Roberson, Atatiana Jefferson, Michael Dean, Darius Tarver and Cameron Lamb.

Relatives of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while he was running in his Georgia neighborhood, and Everett Palmer, who died in a Pennsylvania jail under circumstances that officially remain undetermined, also attended. Police in Georgia have been criticized for their investigation of Arbery's death.

"I can never imagine your pain or the depth of your anguish, but I can promise to fight for justice for all of our people," he said.

Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery's family who attended the meeting with Trump on Tuesday morning, said the president's executive order "takes incremental steps," not the "radical change" the families were looking for.

"He gave no indication that the families in that room reflected a problem in America, that policy could actually resolve it, and it can," Merritt said, speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill. "So that was my concern."

“He laid out his executive order and I have to say it fell kind of flat." Merritt said. There was nothing that we took away from that that we felt would galvanize the movement.”

After meeting with Trump, the families did not stay for the signing ceremony.

White House adviser Ja'Ron Smith explained the families' absences as "a mutual decision because it really wasn't about doing a photo opportunity."

Roughly a dozen law enforcement officials from around the country were invited to attend the ceremony, surrounding the president as he signed the executive order and posing for a photo.

Trump, who has struggled to provide a political or policy response to the national outrage over Floyd's death, did not address concerns in the Rose Garden about systemic racism or racism in law enforcement.

Instead, he again focused on the cases of violence and destruction happening during recent protests around the country calling for police reforms and racial justice, saying there "will be no more looting or arson, and the penalty will be very grave for those who get caught."

"Violence and destruction will not be tolerated," Trump said. "We cannot do that. The looters have no cause that they're fighting for, just trouble."

A majority of the protesters have been peaceful, however, and in addition to the destruction and looting incidents, numerous acts of police violence against demonstrators have been caught on camera.

Congressional action

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working to pass legislation to change police practices.

Democrats unveiled a sweeping overhaul bill this month that would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants. Senate Republicans, who typically look to the White House for cues as to which direction the party is going on policy issues, also began working on their own policing plan this month, with Tim Scott of South Carolina — the only Black Republican in the Senate — leading the effort.

But Republican leaders indicated Monday that they were in no rush to pass a police reform bill before the Fourth of July recess, a delay that Scott said would be a "bad decision."

Trump said Tuesday that the Republican plan could go "hand in hand" with his executive order.

"I am committed to working with Congress on additional measures," he said. "Hopefully they will all get together and come up with a solution that goes even beyond what we're signing today."

CORRECTION (June 16, 2020, 5:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article inaccurately included the names of two men in a list of people who were killed by police. Ahmaud Arbery was not killed by police. Everett Palmer died in custody at the York County, Pennsylvania, Jail in 2018. The coroner's office determined the cause of death to have been "complications following an excited state, associated with methamphetamine toxicity, during physical restraint," but the manner of Palmer's death was undetermined, and no police officers have been charged.