As Donald Trump trumpeted his “law and order” agenda at the Republican National Convention Thursday night, he selectively highlighted aberrant homicide rates while leaving out that whatever rise in U.S. crime does exist is happening in just a handful of cities. Trump pointed to the ambush killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, but did not mention the names of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile. Nor did he reference the nearly 600 people murdered by police in 2016 alone.
“I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” vowed Trump. “I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job done.”
The problem with that is the leading law enforcement officials in the U.S. don’t want Trump’s version of “law and order.” This much was stated in a letter sent to Trump on July 13, signed by the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration* and four other organizations that collectively represent more than 30,000 “current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, district and assistant district attorneys, attorneys general, and U.S. Attorneys.” From the letter:
[L]aw enforcement across the country has shifted to embrace rehabilitation and the opinion that certain individuals in our prison system are serving sentences that are too long for the crime they committed. We also realize that, as we see the same offenders reenter the criminal justice system time and time again, we must be creating and devising innovative programs to reduce recidivism, including job training, addiction counseling, and other productive activities.
The organization asks for resources and policy changes “allowing lower-level offenders a chance for redemption through alternative punishments.”
While the letter is addressed to both Trump and Hillary Clinton, the spirit of the letter’s message is aimed directly at Trump. Ronald Serpas, the former New Orleans police chief who heads the Law Enforcement Leaders group, told CityLab that Trump’s approach to the issue is outdated:
We recognize that every industry gets smarter the longer it’s been around, and to consider that the ‘tough-on-crime’-era of the ‘80s and ‘90s is still the solution we need for today is inconsistent with our practical experiences and inconsistent with the data. I think what we would want Trump to consider is that our organizations represent the people who really have been tough on crime. Our organizations represent the people who have arrested the violent offenders, who’ve prosecuted the violent offenders, and we would like him to consider that we, too, with our experience, may have alternative views than what he’s been exposed to.
Putting it in economic terms, a language Trump is more accustomed to, Serpas said:
You can approach it as a financial matter, that we’re spending $80 billion a year to incarcerate 2.3 million people. And we have reason to believe from research that 50 percent of those people have mental-health diagnosed illness, and two-thirds of those meet the diagnosis for drug or alcohol addiction. That’s the most expensive way in the world with the least-likely outcome of success for treating mental illness.
In a press statement from the organization directly responding to Trump’s RNC speech, Serpas said, “What we heard runs counter to what American law enforcement knows to be true: Our country's crime rates are at historic lows. Misrepresenting these facts only makes our job harder.”
It’s worth mentioning that two instances of police brutality towards African Americans became public within just 48 hours of Trump’s speech. On July 20, a video began circulating of North Miami Police Department officers shooting Charles Kinsey, a 47-year-old unarmed African American attending to an autistic man, while his hands were raised. On July 21, video emerged of a 2015 incident involving an Austin, Texas, police officer repeatedly slamming 26-year-old Breaion King, a black elementary school teacher, on the ground as she screamed for God’s help. She was stopped in a parking lot for speeding. (The video below comes from the Austin American-Statesman.)
Later in the video, King is seen talking with another police officer about her arrest, as she’s handcuffed in the back of a police car. Discussing racism with the police officer, she asks him why people are afraid of black people, to which he responds:
Ninety-nine percent of the time, when you hear about stuff like that, it is the black community that is being violent. That’s why a lot of the white people are afraid, and I don’t blame them. There are some guys I look at, and I know it is my job to deal with them, and I know it might go ugly, but that’s the way it goes. … But yeah, some of them, because of their appearance and whatnot, some of them are very intimidating.
That response is textbook racial implicit bias, which is really a fancy sociological term for plain old racism. Without acknowledging and addressing that there is racism in policing, there is no just law and order that African Americans are bound to respect, as organizations from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to Black Lives Matter have made clear, over the decades and at this critical time.
*CORRECTION: This post previously stated that the organization Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration represented 30,000 members alone. That number actually represents the membership of that organization and four other law enforcement organizations.