Trump executive order seeks to limit chokeholds

President Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order on police reform amid a broad national debate sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has itself led to heightened calls to address racial justice issues in the United States.

“What is needed now is not more stoking of fear and division. We need to bring law enforcement and communities closer together, not to drive them apart,” Trump said during a Rose Garden event he convened to sign the order. 

The executive order released following the president’s remarks instructs the Justice Department to allocate discretionary grant funding to police departments that are certified by federally approved bodies in police training and de-escalation techniques.

In order to receive the funding, state and local law enforcement agencies would need to certify that their policies prohibit the use of chokeholds except in situations where use of deadly force is permitted by law.

Trump claimed during his remarks that the order “banned” chokeholds “except if an officer’s life is at risk.” 

But it is not clear who would determine what constitutes a life-threatening circumstance or how departments will be held accountable. Administration officials have said local leaders will largely shoulder the responsibility of getting law enforcement to comply.

The order also sets up a database to improve information sharing between federal, state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement agencies so officials the federal government can better track officers who have excessive use of force complaints. 

The president said additional funding will be allocated to help police departments deal with homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness.

“We must build upon our heritage, not tear it down, and we must cherish the principles of America’s founding as we strive to deliver safe, beautiful and elegant justice and liberty for all,” Trump said shortly before signing the order. 

The remarks took on an overtly political tone at times, and the president drifted off track to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and the stock market.

Trump touted his accomplishments for the African American community, as he has done in past speeches, and swiped at former President Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Obama's vice president, for not taking stronger action on police reform, saying “they had no idea how to do it.” 

However, the Justice Department under the Trump administration in 2017 rolled back an Obama-era program established to reform police departments following police shootings and other incidents. 

Trump sought to balance his effort to encourage policing reform with his long-standing support for law enforcement and his repeated calls for “law and order” amid nationwide protests. He chastised unruly protesters as “looters” without a cause, decried efforts among some liberal lawmakers and activists to “defund the police” and praised officers for their courage.

“Without police, there is chaos, without law there is anarchy and without safety there is catastrophe,” Trump said, describing the “vast majority” of police as “selfless and courageous public servants” and the number of bad actors as “tiny.” 

The event was attended by law enforcement officials and several GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is leading efforts among Senate Republicans to craft legislation addressing police brutality.

Prior to the Rose Garden speech, Trump met with the families of victims of police violence, including Botham Jean, who was fatally shot in his apartment by a Dallas police officer in 2018, and Cameron Lamb, who was shot and killed by police in Kansas City while in his backyard.

The president said he also met with the family of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed while jogging in Georgia earlier this year.

The families were not in the Rose Garden for the executive order signing.

The executive order marked the president’s first concrete effort to respond to demands for police reform following the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd pleaded for help.

The White House has described the executive order as a “historic” measure that will reign in aggressive police tactics and appease both law enforcement and community advocates. The order was crafted in consultation with law enforcement representatives, families of victims of police violence and faith leaders. 

The measure does not come close to recommending the sweeping reforms that activists have demanded, however. Black Lives Matter and activists from other groups have called for funding to police departments to be significantly reduced and redirected to social programs. 

Congress is separately working to enact legislation to reform police departments. House Democrats announced a sweeping reform bill last week, and Senate Republicans are preparing to unveil their own measure this week. Trump expressed hope on Monday that legislation would go further than his executive order. 

The White House has objected to a provision in the Democrats’ legislation changing “qualified immunity” that shields police from lawsuits, but there appears to be room for common ground on some issues, including banning chokeholds.