Policing in the Era of Trump—Day 1

January 23, 2017
Guest Post

by Thomas Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department

I.        Immigration Enforcement 

Count on the nascent Trump administration to involve law enforcement in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. And too often the law enforcement agencies that can inflict the most damage on the relationships between immigrant communities and their police will be the first to embrace a role in the enforcement of immigration laws, a role that is particularly unsuitable for the police in the twenty-first century United States. 

In Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue states, a county sheriff recently offered to send inmates at the county jail to the Mexican border to help build the Trumpian “wall.” Thankfully sheriffs in Massachusetts are jailers and civil process servers and not police, but the suggestion, though clearly illegal and unconstitutional, that some law enforcement officials welcome a potential role in the enforcement of federal immigration laws is worrisome. There are over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States: local, county, state, and special jurisdiction, and these departments may present an attractive “force multiplier” in the enforcement of federal immigration laws should the Trump administration seek to broaden the imprint of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). The resurrection of the moribund “287 (g)” program or some similar collaborative model for the joint federal-local-state-county enforcement of immigration laws would be catastrophic for immigrant communities.

The police are typically unaware that entry into the United States without the appropriate documentation authorizing such entry, while against the law, is a civil infraction and not a criminal violation (unless the individual has been previously deported). Too many of the police are also unaware that they do not have the authority to ask community residents with whom they come into contact for immigration documents (and this is a common practice in immigrant communities). In the eyes of many of the police, undocumented immigrants are criminals who have no rights under the Constitution and who should be arrested and immediately deported.

The police do not often enough receive training regarding the availability of “U” visas for those immigrants who report to them being the victim of or witness to a crime (the one immigration-related role best suited to the police). Should the police become involved in the enforcement of civil immigration laws, the effect would be chilling to any advances made in the last few decades in the thawing of historically tense relations between the police and immigrant communities.

II.     Race and the Police

Writing in Vox, Dara Lind fears that the dangerous rhetoric being put into play by the Trump administration in the characterization of the residents of communities affected by police violence and misconduct and who engage in activities protected under the First Amendment as “rioters,” “looters” and “violent disruptors” will embolden the police to return to the practices that had largely been put on “pause” during the second Obama administration. Practices that include aggressive and violent policing strategies in dealing with protesters and residents of communities of color. “Broken kneecaps policing” redux.

Heather Digby Parton, in Salon, observed “Trump’s view of race in America is very simple: If the police could take the gloves off, this would fix whatever problems exist.” And no doubt but that those gloves will indeed come off during this administration. According to Parton, “Trump’s loyalty and reverence for the police and his racist 1970’s stereotypes of African-American communities make for a dangerous brew,” a brew that could prove disastrous for social movements like #BlackLivesMatter. For the police have little to fear from Trump and his soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and trampling on the Constitution and civil rights and civil liberties protections will likely see little scrutiny from the Department of Justice under Sessions. “Pattern and practice” investigations by DOJ will no doubt grid to a halt.

III.     The Police and Trump

That the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) rather fortuitously endorsed Trump and the incestuous relationship that followed will bestow upon the police an outsized influence in criminal justice policy at the federal level, and this is without precedent. The FOP issued a questionable list of executive actions that they believe Trump should undertake during the first 100 days of his presidency (although they subsequently disavowed this).

The FOP’s list leans heavily on immigration-related issues and calls for the expansion of the nefarious “287 (g)” program, as well as restricting federal financial aid to so-called “sanctuary cities.” The FOP also calls upon Trump to “De-prioritize implementation of some or all of the recommendations made by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” or back to the pernicious police practices that have necessitated the DOJ’s investigation and intervention into the policies and practices of 25 police departments in the last eight years. Regarding the DOJ’s consent decrees, Think Progress, observed “Done right, they set communities and their police on a collaborative path toward reform,” but incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a dim view of and lukewarm support for the consent decrees that the DOJ has negotiated with dozens of police departments during the Obama administration. During Sessions’ Senate confirmation hearing he testified “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that.”

IV.     Privacy and Surveillance

We should be vigilant regarding privacy protections and the looming unbridled use of surveillance technology by local, county and state law enforcement. The city of Boston police department recently scrapped plans to spend $1.4 million in the acquisition of technology that would allow the city police department to monitor traffic on social media. The justification for this sweeping use of surveillance against individuals and groups who are not necessarily suspected of involvement in criminal activity fell under the predictable police “red herrings”: “the interests of public safety” (whatever that means), and “counterterrorism.” Watch for the federal dollars to flow into the hands of law enforcement for surveillance technology and for weapons and military armaments.

V.     Militarization

Of utmost concern should be the potential for hitting the rewind and backsliding on the issue of the militarization of the police. The Obama administration had sharply curtailed the Department of Defense “1033 Program,” as well as DHS and DOJ grant disbursements that put military grade vehicles, weapons, aircraft, uniforms and other equipment into the hands of local law enforcement. This followed the reprehensible debacle in the police response to events in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown by police.

For there will no doubt be many marches, protests and gatherings of groups of people over the course of the Trump administration, people engaging in activities that are protected by the First Amendment, particularly the freedoms of speech, assembly and the press. The police and agents of the Trump administration (and even certain of the media) will no doubt characterize such individuals and groups as “thugs,” “rioters,” “looters” and “violent disruptors” in a thinly veiled code to demonize those who would speak out, to object and to protest. We should be skeptical of these characterizations.

VI.     The First Amendment

On Saturday, Jan. 21, a day after the inauguration of Trump, millions took to the streets in cities across the country and around the world in protest and in a spectacle that was ultimately a glorious tribute to the First Amendment. There were no arrests, no tear gas, no rubber bullets, no tanks, no sound cannons, no shootings and no deaths. The gatherings were peaceful and largely without incident, but those assembled were mostly white, mostly women.

I am in fear as to what will happen when those who take to the streets to interrogate injustice are African American, Hispanic, LGBTQ, homeless, disabled, immigrant or Muslim, and they are met by police who may be emboldened by the rantings of the depraved, unqualified and unhinged leader of the free world, one who has no apparent knowledge of the Constitution or of civil rights and civil liberties protections. Trump’s police—let’s hope that they a relatively few in number. However, if the police, our police, fail to abide by and to respect the Constitution, we must not remain mute; police misconduct and abuse toward any of us is an injustice toward all of us.