The State of Policing

Is “Tough on Crime” Back, and Will It Slow Reforms?

Much of police reform in the United States takes place at the state level and in the approximately 18,000 local law enforcement agencies.

In its May 2015 report, the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing attempted to reshape the narrative of police reform around common goals, but the election of President Trump has changed the focus at the federal level. As a candidate, Trump campaigned on a “tough on crime” platform, and his administration has retreated from federal oversight of police and withdrawn from federal efforts to improve police-community relations. This “course correction,” according to a Department of Justice announcement in September, will “return control to the public safety personnel sworn to protect their communities and focus on providing real-time technical assistance to best address the identified needs of requesting agencies to reduce violent crime.”J. Brian Charles, “Justice Department Ends Era of Pushing Police Reform,” Governing, September 28, 2017; and U.S. Department of Justice, “Department of Justice Announces Changes to the Collaborative Reform Initiative,” press release (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, September 15, 2017).

While the federal government has shifted course, much of police reform in the United States takes place at the state level and in the approximately 18,000 local law enforcement agencies, many of which are embracing new approaches, including diversion programs that keep people out of the criminal justice system and procedural justice practices to improve community trust.

Police leaders across the country condemned President Trump’s remarks when he suggested, in a televised speech to a group of law enforcement officers, that they shouldn’t be “too nice” in arresting suspects and encouraged them to handle people in custody roughly.Mark Berman and Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., “U.S. Police Chiefs Blast Trump for Endorsing ‘Police Brutality,’” Washington Post, July 30, 2017; and Philip Bump, “Trump’s Speech Encouraging Police to be ‘Rough,’ Annotated,” Washington Post, July 28, 2017. Less than a month after that incident, a group of current and retired New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers drew national attention when they held a rally in support of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers football player who refused to stand for the national anthem in protest of police violence against people of color.Vivian Wang, “New York Police Officers Rally in Support of Colin Kaepernick,” New York Times, August 19, 2017.

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