Letters From an American

Can the Police Be Reformed? Should They?

Civil Service game playing, VOA takeover, Bolton's big book

Can the Police Be Reformed?

Kim Davies / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

June 16, 2020

On May 25, the casual murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis as police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, captured on film by a witness, led to protests against police brutality and the white supremacy that underpins it. The protests have lasted until today and show every sign of continuing. What has stood out about the protests is that it is the police who have been most conspicuously rioting. Their attacks on protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bangs, rubber bullets, clubs, and so on have led Americans to demand police reform.

Public anger against police has risen during the protests as more evidence of police misconduct has come out. On June 11, police in Louisville, Kentucky, released the incident report of the murder of Breonna Taylor in her own apartment during a botched raid. The sparse report listed her injuries as “none”—officers shot her 8 times—and said their entry into her apartment was not forced, although witnesses and crime scene photographs show police used a battering ram to gain access to the apartment while Taylor and her boyfriend slept.

Then, Friday, June 12, a police officer in Atlanta shot Rayshard Brooks in the back after he resisted arrest, stole an officer’s Taser, and then ran away. Brooks’s death sparked more protests in Atlanta, where people blocked highways and burned the Wendy’s restaurant where Brooks was killed.

Pressured to do something to reform the police, today Trump signed an executive order the White House claimed was written in consultation with police and with the families of those killed by police, although none of those families was present at the president’s press conference announcing the order. Police officials were. The order focuses on enabling police to identify and get help for officers who have shown violent tendencies, and calls for mental health professionals to ride along with officers to deal with calls concerning homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness.

Trump praised the families who had endured the loss of loved ones, but quickly veered into campaign language that used his growing emphasis on “law and order.” “Americans want law and order, they demand law and order. They may not say it, they may not be talking about it, but that’s what they want,” he said. “Some of them don’t know that that’s what they want, but that’s what they want. They understand that when you remove the police, you hurt those that have the least, the most.” He blamed former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden for letting the police problem fester “because they had no idea how to [fix] it and it is a complex situation.”

Then he turned to a celebration of the economy, and said that economic opportunity was the way to achieve civil rights. (It was a mishmash, but that was the gist.)

For their part, Democrats who control the House of Representatives are preparing legislation that sets national standards for police behavior, requires officers to wear body cameras, and abolishes the use of chokeholds. Chair of the House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) told MSNBC: “Over 1,000 people last year died at the hands of police in the United States. In most European countries it’s not more than 1 or 2. There’s something very wrong with the police culture and with the way we train police.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says the Democratic bill is a non-starter. He dismissed it as “typical Democratic overreach to try to control everything in Washington.” Senate Republicans are working on a bill without input from Democrats. It has not yet been released, so it’s not clear what’s in it, but it appears to try to incentivize states to try to clean up police tactics.

Both sides are hoping to have a bill on the president’s desk before the July 4 holiday.

Meanwhile, other fights are shaping up in Washington, largely over Trump’s apparent attempt to pack the government with loyalists rather than nonpartisan civil servants.

The big story today was that the Department of Justice, overseen by Trump loyalist William Barr, sued Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton to block his book from coming out on June 23.

It was a weird lawsuit. It claims Bolton is “compromising national security by publishing a book containing classified information,” but the government did not try to get a temporary restraining order, and it did not sue the book’s publisher: it went after Bolton alone, charging him with violating a non-disclosure agreement and demanding he hand over any money he makes from the book. Law professor Rick Hasen speculated on Twitter that the lawsuit “may be no more than a complaint written for an audience of one, more about looking tough against Bolton and claiming he’s violating the law than about getting actual court relief.”

We learned tonight that Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Elaine McCusker has resigned from the Pentagon. McCusker was the one who flagged the administration’s withholding of money from Ukraine in 2019 as illegal. A string of emails revealed in the Ukraine scandal showed that she continued to press the administration to release the money. After Congress learned of the illegal hold, an administration official emailed her to suggest that it was the fault of the Pentagon, rather than the White House, that the money had not been processed. McCusker would have none of it. She answered: “You can’t be serious. I am speechless.”

Also tonight, Eliot Engel (D-NY), chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, warned that Michael Pack, the new head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the agency that oversees the nonpartisan media outlet Voice of America, is planning a purge of the agency’s career leadership tomorrow morning. Pack is an associate of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and it seems he is intent on turning the VOA into a mouthpiece for the Trump administration. Engel warned Pack that “the law requires that our international broadcasting be independent, unbiased, and targeted toward audiences around the world.” He pledged to “use every tool at the Foreign Affairs Committee’s disposal to make sure career employees are protected, the law is followed, and USAGM’s credibility remains intact.”

The purge of career officials from government has been made easier by gutting the Merit Systems Protection Board, the federal agency that protects civil service workers from being fired without cause. Since 2017, the board has not had enough members to decide cases, and for more than a year there has been no one on it at all. The president has nominated enough people to get the board back to work, and only one of them faces serious objections. But McConnell has not put the nominations on the Senate calendar.

Still, the fight to protect a non-partisan civil service from turning into a tool of the president is not over. The House Judiciary Committee is investigating what Democrats say is the “unprecedented politicization” of the Department of Justice under Trump and Barr. Today it subpoenaed Aaron Zelinsky, who resigned from the team prosecuting Trump’s friend and former adviser Roger Stone after the Justice Department abruptly reduced its sentencing request for Stone. It also subpoenaed acting chief of staff of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division John Elias. At a hearing on June 24, Zelinsky will be asked about the Stone case, and Elias will presumably talk about whether the president exercised undue influence on DOJ business investigations.

A former deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, Donald Ayer, will testify before the committee without a subpoena. Ayer says he will explain how Barr has been “increasing the power of the president to the point that he’s almost an autocrat.”


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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.