On the campaign trail and in debates, Donald Trump often scored cheers for his defense of police in the wake of protests over officer-involved shootings. Calling police “the most mistreated people in America” earned the then-GOP nominee endorsements from major law enforcement organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Border Patrol Council.
So what would a President Trump do to support law enforcement officers or change policing?
That remains unclear. His spirited defense of Stop & Frisk at the first presidential debate, for example, may have won him adulation in some circles, but it’s unlikely to be a practice he could mandate at the local level, given its dubious constitutionality. On the other hand, Trump’s controversial calls for surveillance of Muslim communities and mass deportation operations (both of which are already occurring) could dramatically expand local police powers.
To understand what changes in policing Trump could enact, CityLab spoke with Alex Vitale, an Associate Sociology professor at Brooklyn College, whose scholarship focuses on contemporary American policing.
Will Trump’s primary impact on policing come through action at the federal level (through agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice) or through a devolution of power to localities?
I don’t think he will have a big effect on localities because he won’t have tons of money to throw around from Congress…. One should not overstate the importance of federal policy on local policing. You have 18,000 local police departments that are largely autonomous, and there’s very little evidence that federal oversight has ever made much of a difference. The Department of Justice has sued many departments, and they have entered into reform agreements, but then their problems continue… I think he will mostly reshape policing in terms of federal law enforcement.
So what policing issues can a Trump administration most dramatically have an effect at the federal level?
Number one, the loss of these Department of Justice investigations is clearly gonna happen. There was almost nothing under Bush, so there will be nothing in the way of these broad pattern and practice investigations pressuring departments to reform. Some of these people are civil service career folks, and so they will remain and the investigations won’t be cut off overnight. But over time, we’ll see no new investigations being undertaken, and actual litigation won’t be approved.
Two is the militarization of policing. We can expect that access to military weapons that Obama limited will most likely be expanded. And any strings for federal policing grant money that may have existed—and have been very weak anyway—now those will be gone.
Third is the impact on federal law enforcement, ramping up the size of Border Patrol, which is already now the largest law enforcement agency in the country and bigger than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.
Over 2009 to 2015, Obama deported a record-breaking 2.5 million people. Will further expansion of the border patrol make Trump’s proposed scale of deportation, which could double Obama’s figure, actually possible?
There are definitely limits. The logistics are quite daunting. You would have to create massive new bureaucracies and detention centers. It would be extremely expensive and he would have to get a fiscally conservative Congress to go along with it. He can, however, begin to make incremental changes, shifting priorities within budgets.
Right now border patrol can stop anyone within a 100 miles of the border without probable cause. We could see a big increase in these kinds of check-point operations. Operation Wetback [in 1954] was able to deport over a million people a year; there is no reason why they couldn’t start moving that direction. I would not want to be a Latino living near the border right now.
In terms of other federal law enforcement activities, Trump has called for increased surveillance of mosques and floated the idea of compiling a national database of Muslims living in the U.S. How do you think he can or will expand those types of efforts? And how will that involve local police?
Civil liberties groups will have their hands full trying to monitor what is going on. If you have Rudy Giuliani as attorney general and Chris Christie heading the Department of Homeland Security, there will be repeated constitutional violations: They’re going to try to do more warrantless surveillance, build more questionable cases against people, more entrapment of vulnerable people, etc… And I think it will involve local police extensively, too, because now you have all these post-9/11 fusion centers and joint terrorism task forces, so you can expect local police to be pulled into these investigations.
What will “police reform” now look like?
The attempts to get departments to experiment with practices based on federal research into best practices will likely evaporate, such as trying to reduce use of force against mentally health problems, or efforts to develop crime prevention strategies with communities. This issue, and any reform, has become politicized, and divorced from rational consideration of evidence based practices.
That research is no longer relevant. The question will now be: Does the “reform” fit with the new kind of authoritarianism that Trump has campaigned on? This is why he got the endorsements of many of the national police organizations. The whole Blue Lives Matter movement is looking for Trump to validate their punitive approach to crime, disorder, and community problems.