On January 22, Attorney General William Barr swore in 18 members of a White House commission on policing.
Comprised entirely of law enforcement officials, the commission claims it will study how to “make American law enforcement the most trusted and effective guardians of our communities.”
Amid historic low crime rates and a protracted national struggle against the violence of everyday policing, commission members will study subjects such as how to expand and strengthen police forces, how to modernize training and technology, and how to counter criticism and reforms aimed at law enforcement to rebuild the legitimacy of the institution.
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The Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice was established on October 28, 2019, through an executive order.
According to Barr, the scope and membership of the commission is narrow by design.
“While many topics and aspects of the criminal justice system merit study,” Barr wrote in a memo on January 21, 2020, “the commission will focus on the national issues that most impact the efficacy of American law enforcement to safeguard the public and maintain a positive relationship with their communities.”
“Law enforcement is frequently tasked with addressing the consequences of social ills—including drug addiction, mental illness, and homelessness—for which the criminal justice system is not always the best solution,” Barr wrote.
“While facing these challenges, many public voices express distrust and disrespect for the law enforcement community, resulting in a corresponding decline in officer morale and health, as well as the willingness of Americans to volunteer to become law enforcement officers.”
Barr argued that “a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives is important for gaining an effective understanding of these problems and formulating solutions.”
Of the 18 people appointed to the commission, 17 are active members of law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and judges. One is a city councilman from McKinney, Texas, who has a background in law enforcement and is the first vice president of the local police association.
The commission “may host listening sessions” with people who do not work in law enforcement, soliciting input from “government service providers; businesses; nonprofit entities; public health experts; victims rights’ organizations; other advocacy and interest groups; reentry experts; academia; and other public and private entities and individuals with relevant experience or expertise.”
Recommendations to “prevent, reduce, and control crime, increase respect for the law, and assist victims” will most likely reflect the perspectives of law enforcement.
The commission must report its recommendations to the attorney general no later than October 28, 2020. They will be sent to President Donald Trump no more than 60 days thereafter. The commission will terminate within 90 days of submitting its report.
Who Is on Trump’s Policing Commission?
Every single member of the commission works in or has ties to law enforcement. The majority are white men.
Phil Keith will chair the commission. He was the police chief in Knoxville, Tennessee from 1988 to 2004. During that time, repeated acts of violence by police against the city’s Black residents precipitated a movement that established a civilian review board and put surveillance cameras in police cruisers.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Keith “called the reforms necessary, estimating the videos upheld officers’ actions ‘99 percent of the time.’”
COPS came out of the notorious 1994 crime bill. The office is essentially a slush fund for police departments on the state and local level that has doled out $14 billion since it was founded.
The goal of COPS is to advance a “community policing” model that is a sibling to “broken windows” policing. Community policing efforts describe themselves as strategies to strengthen bonds between police and neighborhoods, but in reality, they promote increased violence, harassment, surveillance, and violations of constitutional rights.
As the collective, World Without Police, explains, the strategy tends to lead to increased funding and “extended police presence and surveillance into everyday life,” turning “social problems into police problems.”
In 2018, when Keith took over COPS, he told local news outlets, “My first priority will be carrying out the mission of the attorney general’s violent crime plan. We’ll primarily be going back to basics, listening to law enforcement in the field, which has not been occurring for a while.”
Law enforcement is eager to tout the crime reduction benefits of community policing. But despite flooding departments with cash and significantly increasing the number of police officers and the intensity of their patrolling, there is no significant evidence that it is effective in reducing crime.
Robert Gualtieri, Pinellas County Sheriff in Florida, is another member of the commission. He refused to follow in the steps of other departments around the country and reduce the use of electroshock weapons like Tasers, which can be deadly.
When Reverend Al Sharpton held a rally in Florida following the deaths of black men shot by police, Gualtieri told Sharpton to “go back to New York and mind your own business.”
He led the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission following the 2018 mass shooting and came out in support of arming teachers on the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) television network.
Gualtieri was the first to sign on to a policy that helped Florida sheriffs duck sanctuary city rules and work with ICE to detain and deport immigrants. He also faced criticism for requesting more information on real-time facial recognition software for his department. Though he later claimed the request was made “inadvertently,” the fact remains that he has briefed legislators on the subject and is the chair of a sheriffs’ working group on the technology.
Barr appointed Gina Hawkins, the police chief in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Activists have called for her resignation or firing and demanded investigations into the department since 2018, when members of the community alleged police planted evidence to arrest a couple on drug charges.
She was also a delegate in the 23rd Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE), an Islamophobic and unabashedly Zionist law enforcement training partnership with Israel, in which police travel to the country to study its infamously racist and militarized police force.
Craig Price, Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, was appointed to the commission as well. Price supervised the South Dakota Highway Patrol, as it played a key role in brutally suppressing the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. His department was reimbursed over a half-million dollars for its efforts to surveil and attack protesters.
Price is part of the executive board of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), a professional association that has publicly rebuked Trump for his celebration of violence by police and has apologized for the “historical mistreatment of minorities by police.” At the same time, IACP’s leadership oversees police departments routinely engaged in violence and misconduct.
For Filter Magazine, Rory Fleming dug into the record of commission member and Virginia prosecutor Nancy Parr. Fleming noted Parr leads the National District Attorney Association, “which [champions] fake forensic science in court and continues to argue that marijuana legalization will cause its underage use and use while driving to skyrocket.”
Parr’s presence on the commission should serve as a warning sign for any recommendations it may have pertaining to drug criminalization. Parr told members of a House subcommittee that there is a “big difference” between possessing and distributing drugs—a widely debunked claim that prosecutors are fond of making to justify incarcerating drug users.
Parr prosecuted a woman for drug possession after she overdosed. She also illegally registered homeless people as “habitual drunkards,” which as Fleming put it, enabled “their incessant harassment by police.”
David Rausch, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, also opposes cannabis legalization, and Barr appointed him to the commission. Rausch also worked with the State Department to train police in Jamaica on so-called “tactical responses to terrorism.” Such trainings have a dark history as a tool of foreign intervention with roots in the United States’ forays into Latin America in the 1970s.
Suburban Texas City Councilman Frederick Frazier is the only person on the commission, who is not an active member of law enforcement. He is, however, the first vice president of the Dallas Police Association. The organization has pushed for increasing police headcounts and was the target of protests in 2019 after activists accused its president of participating in an attempted cover-up after police killed Botham Jean.
Frazier is also notable for having joined the effort to recall a colleague named La’Shadion Shemwell—the only black member of the City Council—after Shemwell pushed to declare a “black state of emergency” following the deaths of two North Texas residents at the hands of police officers.
What Will Trump’s Police Commission Research?
Trump’s policing commission will approach what it calls “social ills,” not in terms of the needs of those who use drugs, endure mental illness, or face homelessness, but rather in terms of how to better police them. It will ponder how government resources like education, business, and social services may be incorporated into policing instead of how they may entirely replace policing.
The commission will explore how to “improve and increase” enlistment, training, and retention of police officers at the state and local level.
It will scrutinize refusals by state and local prosecutors to enforce laws or prosecute categories of crimes. The commission will also study policing in rural areas and indigenous people.
The commission will issue recommendations to address the mental and physical health of officers, evaluate the efficacy of federal grants to state and local police departments, and investigate the challenges and opportunities new technologies bring to policing.
Public-private partnerships with businesses and community development organizations will be explored, as well as the roles they can play in fostering “prosperous and safe communities,” including through tax incentives created under Trump’s 2017 tax bill.
The commission will evaluate trends in crime and the use of “targeted deterrence” approaches, which dovetail with community policing. Targeted deterrence, or focused deterrence as its sometimes called, is popular among law enforcement and also deeply unjust, involving racist and inaccurate gang profiling, collective punishment strategies, and a regime of inadequate but mandatory “services.”
The law enforcement officials on the commission will weigh in on “juvenile delinquency” and youth crime, victims services, and re-entry programs and initiatives to see “how prisoner programming and post-custodial rehabilitation initiatives can reduce recidivism and improve the quality of life for criminal offenders and their communities.”
They will also look into how data is being used and collected, and how law enforcement should “address evolving threats to national security in the sphere of domestic and international terrorism.”
The issue of trust and respect in policing, however, is emphasized in both the executive order and the memo from Barr.
“This group shall focus on the trend of diminished respect for law enforcement and the laws they enforce,” Barr declares. “The group should specifically evaluate how under-enforcement of the criminal law in certain jurisdictions affects public safety; perception of law enforcement and the laws they enforce; police resources and morale; and rule of law.”
Trump Fans the Flames of a Black Lives Matter Backlash
With the exception of the prison reform bill known as the FIRST STEP Act, Donald Trump’s presidency has participated in a backlash against criminal justice reforms. This commission can be best understood as part of his efforts to salvage law-and-order politics in the U.S.
Trump is one of only a few presidents in the last 60 years to form a commission like this. Barack Obama convened the “Task Force On 21st Century Policing” in 2014, roughly a year after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Unlike Trump, Obama tapped people who did not work in law enforcement for his commission. He also permitted the Justice Department to review misconduct at some of the most notorious local police departments. But similar to Trump’s commission, Obama’s ultimately recommended community policing, restoring trust and legitimacy of policing, and more officers and training.
President Lyndon Johnson also established a policing commission in 1965 toward the end of the civil rights movement and as part of his “war on crime.” That commission shares its name with Trump’s and has been credited with helping kickstart the “tough-on-crime” mentality that dominated American politics for much of the 20th century.
Professor Alex Vitale, who covered the history of policing and analyzed reforms in his book “The End Of Policing,” told Shadowproof that, unlike Trump’s commission, “the Johnson commission was actually designed with a clear problem in mind and the belief that they could stage a meaningful intervention by coordinating with leading experts and government leaders.”
“While that commission made important mistakes that led to intensified policing in the U.S., it did have a major impact on American policing. In contrast, the Trump commission is an exercise in symbolic politics. He has selected a group of ideological supporters from mostly small and southern departments, who are in line with his political base.”
“He is basically signaling to that base that he supports the most conservative and authoritarian segments of the law enforcement community such as the Fraternal Order of Police and rural sheriffs,” Vitale argued.
The Trump administration has directly rebuked the rising tide of criminal justice reform, even celebrating the violence of policing.
Upon taking office in 2017, Trump issued three executive orders on law enforcement that strengthened police powers. He celebrated the violence of policing in speeches. And his campaign to aggressively harass, arrest, detain, and deport migrants should be understood as part of the same program.
Trump’s efforts have lent momentum and legitimacy to the backlash around the country.
In Philadelphia, for example, decarceral DA Larry Krasner has faced intense pushback on his efforts to develop a different culture of prosecution—so much so that lawmakers have moved to diminish his authority.
A ballot initiative called Keep California Safe could potentially undo significant portions of the sentence reduction provisions of Proposition 47.
And in New York, modest bail reforms were barely in effect for a week before law enforcement and lawmakers clamored for provisions to be rolled back.
Will Trump’s Law Enforcement Commission Impact Criminal Justice Reform?
“This kind of commission has very little chance of having much actual impact on policing,” Vitale said. “Their recommendations lack legitimacy in the eyes of many law enforcement insiders, especially the big city police chiefs who are the most important actors in this world, but who have been totally excluded from the process.”
“The lack of any outside experts will further undermine the credibility of the commission and even its ability to come to any credible conclusions about the many issues it’s been tasked with undertaking.”
Vitale added that “the mandate for the committee is completely out of touch with the actual challenges facing law enforcement and will do little to advance meaningful conversation, much less policy about how to reduce the harms caused by policing.”
Additionally, there’s only so much influence the federal government can truly exert on state and local law enforcement practices. Scholars like Professor John Pfaff have pointed to the general weakness of federal funding as an incentive for change within law enforcement agencies.
But others, like Dr. Heather Schoenfeld, have argued that local, state, and federal jurisdictions follow trends, and with the help of media, they create feedback loops that amplify and reinforce harmful ideas and practices. This is largely self-perpetuating, building momentum behind their own ideas of which issues and available solutions matter, regardless of how experience, evidence, and scholarship might disagree.
Given the makeup, background, and stated focus, it is likely the Trump administration will use the commission to promote police propaganda in response to a well-deserved crisis of confidence in the system.