New York Times
By Timothy William and Richard A. Oppel Jr.
February 12, 2017
Not surprisingly, President Trump’s approach to crime, which began to take shape in a series of moves last week, generated swift criticism from liberals and civil rights groups.
But it also stirred dissent from another quarter: prominent police chiefs and prosecutors who fear that the new administration is out of step with evidence that public safety depends on building trust, increasing mental health and drug addiction treatment, and using alternatives to prosecution and incarceration.
“We need not use arrest, conviction and prison as the default response for every broken law,” Ronal W. Serpas, a former police chief in Nashville and New Orleans, and David O. Brown, a former Dallas chief, wrote in a report released last week by a leading law enforcement group. “For many nonviolent and first-time offenders, prison is not only unnecessary from a public safety standpoint, it also endangers our communities.”
The organization, the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, is made up of more than 175 police officials and prosecutors, including Charlie Beck, Los Angeles’s police chief; Cyrus R. Vance Jr., Manhattan’s district attorney; and William J. Bratton, the former police chief in New York and Los Angeles. Other leading law enforcement groups have also called for an increase in mental health and drug treatment, a focus on the small number of violent offenders who commit the most crimes, training officers on the appropriate use of force, and retooling practices to reflect a growing body of evidence that common practices, such as jailing people before trial on minor offenses, can actually lead to an increase in crime.
Mr. Trump has shifted the focus from civil rights to law and order, from reducing incarceration to increasing sentences, from goading the police to improve to protecting them from harm. Last week, he swore in a new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who has said that the government has grown “soft on crime,” and helped block a bipartisan bill to reduce sentences. Mr. Sessions said that a recent uptick in crime in some major cities is a “dangerous, permanent trend,” a view that is not supported by federal crime data, which shows crime remains near historical lows.
The president signed executive orders that repeatedly connected public safety to immigration violations, vowing to fight international crime cartels; to set up a task force to “comprehensively address illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime”; and to focus on preventing violence to peace officers.
Some police chiefs and sheriffs have complained that immigration enforcement is not consistent with their priorities and could undermine hard-earned trust. “I would rather have my officers focused on going after violent criminals and people breaking into homes than going after nannies and cooks,” Chief Art Acevedo of Houston said.
Kim Ogg, the new district attorney in Houston, won office promising to make changes like dropping prosecution of low-level drug offenses, reducing the use of money bail and releasing videos of police shootings. Those priorities were much more aligned with the Obama administration than Trump’s, in whose pronouncements Obama-era buzzwords like deincarceration, constitutional policing and de-escalation — reducing the use of force during police encounters — have all but disappeared. Mr. Trump did tell a gathering of police chiefs this week: “As part of our commitment to safe communities, we will also work to address the mental health crisis. Prison should not be a substitute for treatment.”
Ms. Ogg said Mr. Trump’s law enforcement speech would not prompt disagreement, but did not necessarily reflect new concerns. “No one in law enforcement is going to take a position against protecting law enforcement officers — but I think promoting equal justice and equal protection for everyone is the job of district attorneys, and our leadership,” she said. Mr. Trump has been silent about fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians — which until recently had monopolized conversations about criminal justice. Instead, he has spoken about the need for more aggressive policing to stem violent crime, including a threat to “send in the Feds” to quell the growing rate of homicides in Chicago.
Some police chiefs said they are reserving judgment until there is more meat on the bones of the administration’s plans. “Hopefully, they are going to seek our practical advice,” said Edward A. Flynn, Milwaukee’s police chief, who also heads the legislative committee of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “That to us is key. We don’t want any more policy bromides grounded in campaign promises. We want ideas grounded in practical wisdom about how to protect our cities.”
Still, a number of chiefs — and perhaps the vast majority of lower-ranking officers — say they are basking in the glow of Mr. Trump’s positive attention after feeling under siege during the Obama administration. “Law enforcement in general was painted with a very broad brush,” said Michael J. Bouchard, the sheriff of Oakland County, Mich. “The idea was that policing was broke, and I think that was a false dialogue.”
Unions agreed. “I can promise that if we have a president who is speaking about protecting the lives of police officers, that the membership is going to be supportive of him,” said Chuck Canterbury, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “No police officer took an oath that said, ‘I agree to support and defend the Constitution and to get my butt whipped.’” Michael A. Ramos, the president of the National District Attorneys Association and the chief prosecutor in San Bernardino County, Calif., hailed the shift in emphasis, saying the pendulum had swung “way too far” toward being “soft on crime.”
Law enforcement leaders responded more positively to Mr. Trump’s order to ratchet up the fight against organized crime cartels, which operate through intermediaries in even the smallest American cities through the sale of heroin, methamphetamine, and other drugs.
But Darrel W. Stephens, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said the nation also needed to address its appetite for drugs: “We must do everything we can to stop the flow of drugs into our country, but doing so would not solve our substance abuse problem.”
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