Trump’s Public Safety Executive Orders Largely Symbolic

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By Jessica DaSilva

President Donald J. Trump signed on Feb. 9 three executive orders aiming to crack down on “transnational criminal organizations"—such as drug cartels and other traffickers—and curb crime against police officers, according to press briefing materials from Whitehouse.gov.

While a policy analyst at a libertarian think tank said the content of the orders suggests more “empty promises” and inaction, a senior adviser at a law enforcement interest group said the orders offer symbolic support that is exactly what law enforcement officers need during a time of low morale.

The fact that the administration seems to be emphasizing protection against violent crime, rather than terrorism, signals a pivotal shift for conversations on public safety, but one that’s based on faulty information, said Arthur Rizer, justice policy director and a senior fellow at the R Street Institute.

But Jim Pasco, senior adviser to the Fraternal Order of Police’s president, said, “The most valuable thing [Trump] can do as a person that people look to for leadership is to use the bully pulpit to show solidarity and support with police.”

The orders included the following:

  •  An order on transnational organizations states the intent to investigate and prosecute any crimes related to bringing illegal substances or animals across U.S. borders.
  •  An order on violence against law enforcement officers asks Congress to “define new [f]ederal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes.” It also promises funds to a task force for investigating crime rates against law enforcement officers.
An order on reducing nationwide crime rates asks the Attorney General to establish a task force for investigating crime rates across the nation. It gives the attorney general absolute discretion in appointing all members of the task force. The task force will “exchange information and ideas among its members that will be useful in developing strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime.”

Violent Crime Over Terrorism

The three executive orders don’t state any kind of independent action by the White House, but state priorities and ask for other government officials to act, Rizer explained.

“I think what [Trump is] trying to do is shore up his campaign promises that were based on fiction and because they were based on fiction, there’s nothing to do about it except release these things,” Rizer told Bloomberg BNA. “They’re just goals.”

What Rizer said he found more significant was the speech from newly confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seemed to prioritize violent crime over terrorism. That’s the first time an attorney general has made that distinction since 2001, he said.

But the emphasis on violent crime is based on cherry-picked statistics and information, he said.

For example, oft-quoted statistics showing that violent crime is on the rise in major cities tend to leave out the information that most of those incidents primarily happen in two Chicago neighborhoods, Rizer said. But when looking at the big picture, violent crime has consistently decreased over the past decade, he said.

“Sure, the percentage rises—if you view it in a vacuum,” Rizer said. “I think that’s lazy and wrong.”

The reason for the administration’s emphasis is because it sells to their base voters, Rizer said. Trump hasn’t stopped campaigning on a “law and order” platform that focuses on tougher prosecutions and fear mongering regarding immigrants and violent crime, he added.

“There’s a push to force this new ideology that immigrants are going to rape your women and steal your children and there’s no real empirical evidence to back it up,” Rizer said.

Violence Against Police

Statutorily speaking, Pasco said FOP knows the president can’t do much to affect law enforcement officers and their low morale. But the executive order regarding a crackdown on violence against police offers encouragement to overworked officers.

Police forces are suffering from severe attrition rates due to overexposure of police violence in the media and an increase of violence against officers in response to those incidents, Pasco said. That doesn’t just impact low enrollment of new recruits, but also creates an unusually high retirement rate, he explained.

In the past, about 20 percent of officers eligible for retirement actually retired, Pasco said. But that figure has increased to almost 100 percent, he added. In Baltimore alone, Pasco said almost every single one of the 600 officers eligible for retirement last year stepped down off the force.

The reaction from members has been overwhelmingly positive, Pasco said.

“There needs to be an understanding that police officers are there to protect the people,” he said. “If police officers aren’t safe, no one is safe.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva in Washington at jdasilva@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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