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Police Reform and America’s Reckoning with Race

Earlier today, President Trump signed an executive order that would set up guidelines for police reforms as calls have grown across the country for changes to America’s policing system. The president’s remarks came after meeting with nine families who had lost a loved one because of a police or racially-motivated shooting, as was the case with Ahmaud Arbery. President Trump expressed his sympathy when he said, “To all of the hurting families, I want you to know that all Americans mourn by your side. Your loved ones will not have died in vain…I can never imagine your pain or the depth of your anguish, but I can promise to fight for justice for all of our people.”

The executive order the president signed laid out three aspects of reform. The first reform laid out was the creation of federal incentives through the Department of Justice “only to those State and local law enforcement agencies that have sought or are in the process of seeking appropriate credentials” from a federally-certified, independent body. The second reform put forth in the executive order was federal incentives for local police departments to bring along experts on mental health, homelessness, and addiction to assist officers as they answer calls. The final reform offered was a directive to the Attorney General to create a national database that cataloged “credible abuses” of force by police officers. 

The executive order also called upon Congress to pass legislation that would “enhance the tools and resources available to improve law enforcement practices and build community engagement.”

Throughout his remarks, President Trump offered a full-throated defense of law enforcement, claiming that “looters have no cause that they’re fighting for-just trouble” and that the American people “demand law and order” even if they “may not be talking about it” or if they “don’t even know that’s what they want.” President Trump also said that the number of bad police officers were “tiny” and that “nobody wants to get rid of them more than the overwhelming number of really good and great police officers.” 

Tim Scott, the lone African-American Republican senator, would later tweet about the day’s events, “Very emotional meeting at the White House this morning with families of those killed by police in recent years. So grateful they are willing to share their powerful stories, and pleased to hear the President and [Attorney General William Barr] commit to helping find answers and solutions.” 

Senator Scott has been leading the effort on police reform legislation that is expected to be announced on Wednesday. The bill would include provisions eliminating the use of the chokehold, creating a national database on police officers who use excessive force, make lynching a federal crime, and provide more funding for local police departments to increase training on de-escalatory tactics and purchase more body cameras. 

One sticking point in the bill is that it currently contains no provisions for reducing or eliminating qualified immunity. President Trump has stated that ending qualified immunity is a “non-starter.” Senator Scott has said that any provision ending qualified immunity would be a “poison pill” in the legislation and would prevent the majority of the GOP to get behind it. Scott has also called for the U.S. Senate to take up legislation as quickly as possible, calling any decision to wait on voting for any kind of police reform legislation a “bad decision.” 

The focus on police reform comes in response to the events of the previous month that have centered on the role that race and racism plays within the United States, and especially within police departments across the country. Many Americans’ views have shifted on the issue as well. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 84% of blacks said they believe that blacks are treated less fairly than whites, with 63% of whites agreeing. 87% of African-Americans, along with 61% of whites, told the survey that they believe the criminal justice system in the United States is less equal to blacks than it is to whites. The same 2019 survey also found that blacks are five times more likely to be unfairly pulled over by the police because of the color of their skin. 

A Monmouth University poll conducted in early June found that 76% of Americans believe that race is a bigger problem in the United States. That number is up 26% since 2015. Most recently, The New York Times discovered that net support for the Black Lives Matter movement has increased by 28% in three years. 

The murder of George Floyd appears to be a watershed moment in American history. As Theodore Johnson wrote in National Review

“The current protests are not simply about race relations. They are not about whether white and black people get along better or like each other more. They are, rather, affirmations of the need for a reckoning, for an answer to the question of why race remains a distinctly divisive issue capable of exposing the gap between the nation’s ideals and its actions.”

Mr. Johnson is correct. Our founding creed is one that must be constantly recognized and affirmed by all citizens of this country: “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” When that creed gets broken, when we as Americans fail to live up to our highest ideals, cries for justice scream out. They are cries of failure, and they are a reminder that the United States is not perfect. Will we ever be perfect? Of course not, but our principles give us the greatest shot at coming close. 

May we all, as Americans, reaffirm to ourselves and to our countrymen that we mean what we say when we claim that all men are created equal. May we strive to build a more perfect Union, a place of liberty and justice for all. If we can do that, then, as Abraham Lincoln said towards the end of his “House Divided” speech, “We shall not fail-if we stand firm, we shall not fail.”

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