A South Carolina judge on Monday declared a mistrial in the murder trial of a white South Carolina police officer after a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Now-former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager was accused of shooting unarmed African-American motorist Walter Scott in the back five times as Scott fled after a traffic stop in a confrontation caught on video.
The police killings of black men across the nation, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in Baltimore; and more recent incidents, such as the police shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., sparked protests around the country and further fractured an already tense relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.
But there were also deadly attacks on police officers. An African-American sniper killed five police officers in Dallas, saying that he wanted to kill whites, particularly white police officers. Another black man killed three police officers in Baton Rouge over the summer. President Barack Obama condemned both attacks, but some law enforcement leaders were angered by what they saw as not enough support to police officers in the president’s comments about the police shootings of black men.
President-elect Donald Trump offered strong support to police officers during the campaign, posting on Facebook back in February that law enforcement officers are not respected in this country. But Trump also referenced the racial divide in the nation in a Facebook posting after the killing of the police officers in Dallas. He secured the endorsements of several law enforcement agencies, including the National Fraternal Order of Police.
But what all this will mean for policing and police brutality under a President Trump isn’t quite clear. In late October, Trump released a 100-day plan (pdf) that included a Restoring Community Safety Act. Its aim is to reduce crime, drugs and violence by creating a task force on violent crime, increasing funding for programs that train and assist local police, and increasing resources for federal law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors to dismantle criminal gangs and put violent offenders behind bars. The plan isn’t on his current presidential transition team’s website, though. Still, many police organizations are looking forward to the Trump administration and are pleased by his nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for U.S. attorney general.
“We obviously feel he said all the right things about how he appreciates and supports law enforcement,” National Sheriff’s Association President Greg Champagne tells The Root. “We’re not asking for special treatment; we’re just asking to be treated fairly, and when incidents occur, no rush to judgment. Don’t condemn a police officer because it’s the popular thing to do when a crowd is in turmoil. The criminal-justice system is not an instantaneous process.”
He says that his organization was among several law enforcement groups that met with Trump’s transition team last week. Among other things, Champagne says, police want to see mental-health reform so that the mentally ill don’t become the responsibility of law enforcement and end up in jails for minor disturbances. His organization also wants to see immigration reform because the number of undocumented immigrants is stressing law enforcement across the country, and the group supports federal-sentencing reform that, he says, doesn’t abandon the safety of the American public.
“We think it’s a good goal to have less people incarcerated, but it needs to be looked at,” Champagne says, “and we need a holistic approach: mental health, poverty in cities, opioids, immigration; all of those things contribute to crime.”
Champagne says that his agency is among those supporting the reinstatement of the 1033 Program, the federal initiative that allowed the transfer of surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense to local police departments. Images of heavily armed police in military vehicles during the protests in Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed caused consternation among those who felt the response was unnecessarily harsh. But Champagne says the equipment is meant to be used defensively, not offensively.
“We’re not looking for grenades or cannons. We’re looking for armored vehicles,” Champagne explains, adding that armored equipment is how law enforcement officers are able to get to scenes and take out terrorists like the ones in the San Bernardino, Calif., attack. “We … will urge Trump by executive order to undo what Obama did restricting that equipment.”
But civil rights leaders and activists of color are concerned that under a Trump administration, the Justice Department could move away from the aggressive stance it has taken against police misconduct and discrimination as well as for civil rights under President Obama.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Los Angeles Times that Sessions “must be committed to equal justice under the law for all.”
“At a time when our country is gripped by a spike in hate crimes, we need an attorney general who will not fan the flames of hate,” Clarke says.
In October the Justice Department allocated about $119 million to fund a hiring program that allows law enforcement agencies to increase their community-policing capacity and crime-prevention efforts. In May of last year, the Obama administration released the final report (pdf) of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, aimed at helping to build trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. There are no signs, so far, that anything about those efforts will change.
Still, activists such as the Rev. Ben McBride, deputy director of PICO California, worry that there is still what they call “implicit bias” against African Americans by some law enforcement officers, even in incidents where no one is killed. McBride spoke with The Root about a traffic stop last month in Richmond, Calif. In a video posted on Facebook, McBride is seen berating three white police officers who stopped a black woman for having expired tags and ordered her car towed instead of giving her a ticket.
“There’s no criminal record here; you could’ve used discretion, but you chose not to … and that, sir, is the reason that black people do not have trust for white police officers in their community where you do not live,” McBride yells at the officers.
He says that he has heard from black police officers in Oakland, Calif., that some of their white counterparts have been quoting the president-elect’s slogan that he’ll make America great again, and that worries him.
“It is a great concern. I have more concern about supporters of Trump in law enforcement and in the community than I do over Trump himself. We have to deal with these people, and they have power to take away life and freedom under the law,” McBride says. “We recognize that every American has the right to vote for whomever they chose, but we have the responsibility to be aware of those choices and how they impact our lives and personal safety.”
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.