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As A New Administration Moves In, Will Our Policing Debate Get Uglier?

Last Updated by Gene Demby on

In the early morning hours of Nov. 10, not long after Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, Phillip Atiba Goff, the head of the Center for Policing Equity in New York, fired off an email meant to encourage his colleagues, who worried that their work was about to be sidelined.

They had spent several years working with police departments, examining the use of force by officers and the role race plays in such cases. Their research had gained fresh attention and urgency as issues of race and policing moved to the forefront of the national conversation. And as people took to the streets to protest the high-profile deaths of unarmed African-Americans following encounters with the police, the Obama White House met with organizers from the nascent Movement for Black Lives and convened a national task force on policing.

Then Trump, who had run on a "law and order" platform that was far less sympathetic to calls for police reform than it was to the police themselves, won the election. So Goff told his colleagues that their research into police use of force — an area around which there remains a frustrating lack of comprehensive data — was likely to matter even more. Policing, he told them, was likely to be the mechanism by which the country dealt with some of its most intractable political problems, like immigration and urban violence and, potentially, the targeted monitoring of certain communities.

If newly emboldened law enforcement agencies were going to be involved in more aspects of American life, Goff said, many people — activists, researchers, policymakers, communities — were going to need as much information as they could get about what they were doing and how.

"I told them that our work was going to be more important than ever," Goff told me in a phone conversation last month.

The national debates over race and policing were rancorous and polarized under the Obama administration, which often strained mightily to validate the concerns of both police and the communities they policed. But in the wake of scathing federal investigations of major police departments, the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to attorney general, and recent survey data showing stark racial and partisan divides on issues of policing — even among officers themselves — it seems that those debates are about to become even uglier.

The civil rights division of the Obama Justice Department has opened 25 "pattern and practice" investigations into local law enforcement agencies since 2009 that it said had a stated focus on "systemic police misconduct rather than isolated instances of wrongdoing." Some of those investigations ended in federal lawsuits meant to push those police agencies toward reform. (Under Obama, 11 law enforcement agencies entered into consent decrees, compared to just three under President Bush.)

But during the confirmation hearing for Sessions, the Alabama senator questioned whether police departments were being treated fairly by the Obama administration's Justice Department. "These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that," Sessions said last week.

His intimation that incidents of police misconduct are driven by the behavior of a few bad apples lines up with the responses to a new survey of police officers released last week by the Pew Research Center. The overwhelming majority of the officers who responded to the national survey said that their jobs had become more difficult following several high-profile incidents of police violence against black people.

But Pew found some telling racial splits among the respondents: White officers, for example, were much more likely than their black colleagues to see the death of black people at the hands of police as "isolated incidents rather than signs of a broader problem."

Most white respondents were skeptical of the motives of the protesters, with only about a third saying they felt protesters were demonstrating in order to hold officers accountable. White officers were much, much more likely to say that the country had made the changes necessary to bring about equal rights for black people: 92 percent of white officers felt this way; only 29 percent of black cops said the same.

But the timing of Sessions' comments was remarkable, coming the same week that saw Baltimore enter into a consent decree with the DOJ after a federal investigation found that officers had regularly roughed up citizens of the predominantly black city when it wasn't ignoring their calls for help. That same week, the federal government rushed to release a report highly critical of the police department in Chicago, contending that officers there regularly violated the rights of citizens — shooting at the backs of fleeing suspects, using tasers against people who posed no threat, and regularly using force against children. (Our colleague, Camila Domonoske, highlighted some of the most chilling findings from the 161-page report here.) And as unsettling as those details were, they weren't terribly different from the findings about police departments in cities like Albuquerque, N.M, Newark and Ferguson, Mo., all of which also entered into consent decrees with the federal government.

We've yet to see whether those federal interventions into local policing will improve the relationships between the police and the policed. As the Washington Post found, consent decrees tend to yield mixed results because cities are so different — and it's still not clear what will happen to the open investigations and consent decrees under the Trump administration.

But one effect of these findings has been to corroborate the experiences of the residents in those cities — particularly those in communities of color — who have complained about the ways the police in their neighborhoods have long operated. If the pendulum of federal action is indeed swinging back to less-responsive days, the next Ferguson or Baltimore or Chicago will play out against an even more fractious backdrop in which there is effectively no official acknowledgment that there was a problem to begin with. By itself, removing that official vindication changes — maybe even jeopardizes — the prospects for police reform in the near term.

"Without the moral weight of the White House ... behind reform, there is [markedly] less external incentive to change," Goff told me on Sunday. "There will still be some momentum. But not the urgency that allowed people to leave the streets and come to the negotiating table."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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