Some of the wins of the criminal justice reform movement will be scrutinized in 2020—and likely threatened—by a new presidential commission. It has been tasked by President Donald Trump with studying the “modern issues” facing law enforcement—which he seemingly considers to be the rise of “progressive” prosecutors and the growing public criticism of policing.
On January 22, Attorney General William Barr announced the establishment of the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice—a body requested by Trump in an October 2019 executive order (Number 13896).
“As criminal threats and social conditions have changed the responsibilities and roles of police officers, there is a need for a modern study of how law enforcement can best protect and serve American communities,” said Barr. “We will examine, discuss, and debate how justice is administered in the United States and uncover opportunities for progress, improvement, and innovation.”
Per the executive order, the commission is to consider “important current issues facing law enforcement and the criminal justice system.” Some of the suggested subject matter aligns with the objectives of some reformers, like “better integration of education, employment, social services, and public health services into efforts to reduce crime and ease the burden on law enforcement, courts, and corrections systems.”
But the study could be antagonistic to hard-fought achievements. Trump suggested that the commission review the effects of “Refusals by State and local prosecutors to enforce laws or prosecute categories of crimes.”
Barr has already expressed his disdain for progressive prosecutors’ moves to not pursue certain drug- and poverty-related charges, calling them “anti-law enforcement.” He has made fear-mongering claims that they’ll produce “More crime; more victims.”
Public attitudes towards law enforcement were also identified by Trump as an area of concern to be studied. The commission unabashedly glorifies police work that has been show to be systematically racist and classist. “There is no calling in America more noble than serving as a police officer,” said Barr. The commission will specifically examine “The need to promote public confidence and respect for the law and law enforcement officer.”
Increasingly mainstream public protest has followed years of Black Lives Matter and other activism around the systemic racism of US policing. Some studies show that public perceptions greatly differ from those working within the system, and the commission’s framing seems to assume that the public should be confident in police institutions in the first place. In a 2017 Pew Research report, 67 percent of surveyed police officers said that Black fatalities during police interactions were “isolated incidents,” while 60 percent of the public viewed them as “signs of a broader problem.”
In December 2019, Barr publicly suggested one draconian remedy: “[Communities] have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves―and if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
“There has been, especially as of late, a disturbing pattern of cynicism and disrespect shown toward law enforcement,” said Barr. He responded to the summer 2019 trend of New Yorkers protesting police violence by dousing officers with water by saying he was “nauseated by the spectacle of prancing punks pelting New York police officers with water and plastic buckets” at the National Fraternal Order of Police conference in New Orleans.
After conducting monthly meetings, the commission will deliver a report and recommendations to Barr in late October 2020, which will then be submitted to the president.
Photograph of President Trump with Attorney General Barr in February 2019 by US Department of Justice