Today, as Jeff Sessions was formally sworn in as attorney general for Donald Trump’s administration, the president signed and released a trio of executive actions detailing his commitment to fight crime, most particularly drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and violent crimes against law enforcement officers.
To be clear, though these are all executive orders, they do not actually attempt to change any existing rules or policies immediately. This isn’t like the Trump’s order on travel visas—the president does not have anywhere near as much latitude in changing laws and regulations here. As we saw under President Barack Obama, though, he can set the stage for how the Department of Justice actually implements or enforces laws.
What we see from these executive orders is Trump calling for exactly what he has promised while campaigning. He argues that we are in a surge of threatening violent crimes, actual data be damned, and wants to reverse it.
One executive action calls for increased efforts in fighting “transnational criminal organizations,” particularly drug cartels and human traffickers. It calls for more of what federal law enforcement is already doing (see Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s reporting on trafficking this morning) and calls for a new “working group.”
The second executive action calls for a “task force” to “reduce crime and restore public safety to communities across the Nation.” If this sounds a little redundant when matched up to the previous executive order, that’s somewhat the case. Of concern, it calls for federal law enforcement to “take the lead” in supporting local public safety issues, whatever that could possibly mean. A very important bullet point about this task force’s goals that should be a concern for those who would see a ramping down on actions like the drug war:
[I]dentify deficiencies in existing laws that have made them less effective in reducing crime and propose new legislation that could be enacted to improve public safety and reduce crime
This sounds like a call for tougher laws or sentences. That does not sound like an administration that is interested in the Department of Justice taking it easy on the people it arrests.
The third executive order contains what is probably the most ominous proposal. It’s an order calling for strategies to protect law enforcement officers across the country and at all levels from violence. It contains this possible goal:
[P]ursue appropriate legislation, consistent with the Constitution’s regime of limited and enumerated Federal powers, that will define new Federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.
Who is ready for a federal Blue Lives Matter sentence enhancement law! It also suggests further down the possibility of increasing mandatory minimum sentences for crimes that involve violence against police.
Two important things: First, despite the constant rhetoric and some high-profile incidents, police have been largely seeing a lengthy drop in violence targeting them over years. There was an uptick in 2016, but it was an anomaly (and not a huge one) in the current downward trends. In total, 63 police officers were killed by gunfire in 2016. Another 12 were killed by vehicular assault. These are the numbers over which we’re considering new federal laws and penalties. I noted in October that there’s also been an increase in the number assaults of law enforcement officers, but it’s too soon to say there’s a trend there, and it’s again after years of decreasing numbers. The data does not support the “war on police” narrative.
Second, we’ve seen what has happened in Louisiana as a result of efforts to create “new” laws to protect police and it’s not pretty. Louisiana passed a law adding police and emergency responders to its hate crime statute: Meaning if a person specifically targets a police officer for a crime, he or she faces an enhanced sentence as though they had targeted somebody on the basis of their race or religion.
Well, that’s what the law is supposed to mean. In reality, what has happened so far is that police have attempted (unsuccessfully) to charge people with hate crimes on the basis of them saying things the police didn’t like while the police were interacting with them. That’s allegedly not what the hate crime law is supposed to do, yet the very people covered by the law are the ones who are deciding whether to charge somebody with it. As C.J. Ciaramella noted, one police chief in the state attempted to argue that simply resisting arrest in Louisiana could be classified as a hate crime.
The last thing we want or need to happen is for such a terrible law to pass nationally and subject people to federal prosecution for such subjective reasons. We have enough of that already.
President Trump’s collection of executive orders can be read through here.