WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump, facing criticism that his policies and inflammatory rhetoric have aggravated a racial divide in the United States, signed an order on Tuesday that he said would reform police practices while maintaining “law and order.”
After weeks of protests against racism and policy brutality prompted by the death of George Floyd, a black man killed on May 25 in police custody in Minneapolis, Trump sought to offer a policy response to rising concerns about racial injustice going into the Nov. 3 election, in which he is seeking a second term.
Trump, a Republican, opened his remarks by expressing sympathy to the families of victims of police violence, pledging to fight for justice and promising them their loved ones will not have died in vain. But he quickly pivoted to a call for a return to “law and order” and a threat of penalties to looters.
“Americans want law and order, they demand law and order,” Trump said at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, reiterating a call that has angered protesters who have poured onto streets from New York to Los Angeles.
In his public comments and on Twitter, Trump has called for crackdowns on protesters and emphasized a forceful and militarized response to the social unrest sparked by the death of Floyd and others. Opinion polls show widespread concerns among Americans about police brutality.
Tuesday’s order encourages police departments to employ the latest standards for use of force, improve information sharing so that officers with poor records are not hired without their backgrounds being known and add social workers to law enforcement responses to non-violent cases involving drug addiction and homelessness, officials said.
Trump’s proposal would steer federal dollars to police departments that get independent certification by outside bodies and would ban chokeholds unless an officer’s life was in danger. It also would encourage them to use less-lethal weapons such as stun guns.
Trump reiterated that he opposes calls to “defund the police” by reimagining or dismantling police departments. Leading Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, have not embraced such calls, but Republicans have jumped on the issue.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives is expected to vote later this month on sweeping legislation put forward by the Congressional Black Caucus to rein in police misconduct.
Senate Republicans are expected to unveil their own legislation on Wednesday that concentrates more on data collection than on policy changes in areas involving lethal force. Trump urged Congress to act.
Democrats want to allow victims of misconduct and their families to sue police, an idea that Republicans oppose. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to reduce job protections for members of law enforcement unions.
Trump’s decision to ban chokeholds appears similar to the ban included in the Democratic legislation, known as the Justice in Policing Act.
Up to now, Republican lawmakers have had a mixed response on the issue, with some saying they are willing to support a ban and others contending that such issues should be left to local jurisdictions.
Attorney General William Barr, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Tim Scott, who is developing the Republican legislation, attended Tuesday’s White House signing.
One civil rights group said Trump’s action did not go far enough.
“While the order takes some steps forward, it is an inadequate response to a nation demanding sweeping, bold action,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement: “This executive order will not deliver the comprehensive meaningful change and accountability in our nation’s police departments that Americans are demanding.”
Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and David Morgan; Editing by Andy Sullivan, Sonya Hepinstall and Cynthia Osterman