President Trump earlier this month announced a new effort to impose harsh penalties on people who hurt or kill police officers. But even some former officers say the policy isn’t likely to have much of an effect.
During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to mandate the death penalty for cop killers. His executive order, signed Feb. 9, doesn’t go quite that far, but it does order the Justice Department to explore new legislation to make attacks on police officers a federal crime and, in the meantime, to use its existing authority to prosecute such crimes, which are now usually tried at the state level. It also calls on the Justice Department to consider recommending that new mandatory minimum sentences be established for people convicted of violence against police officers.
The order comes at a time when policing has become a highly politicized issue. Officers have said their jobs are more difficult after high-profile killings by police in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri. High-profile attacks on police officers, including ambushes in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, made 2016 the deadliest year in decades for officers killed in targeted assaults, according to a report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit group dedicated to honoring fallen officers. In response, some states have passed or are considering so-called Blue Lives Matter legislation that backers say would protect police. The Fraternal Order of Police, an organization representing over 330,000 law enforcement officers, praised Trump’s order and said federal action is necessary.
“Police officers are being attacked simply because they are police officers,” said Jim Pasco, a senior adviser to the group’s president. “This is not just legislation to make cops feel better about themselves; it’s about deterrent and punitive legislation.”
But despite an uptick in overall officer deaths last year, the total number of law-enforcement deaths has generally declined over the longer term. In 2015, 123 officers died in the line of duty, compared with 184 in 1995, according to data from the memorial fund. Those totals include accidents and work-related illnesses (such as on-duty heart attacks). According to data from the FBI, 41 officers were intentionally killed while on duty in 2015, fewer than in the 1990s.
The FOP say that the number of reported assaults and killings of police officers by the FBI is too low and that data from nonprofit groups such as the Officer Down Memorial Page could be more reliable. The Officer Down estimate of killings, however, is only modestly higher than official FBI counts in recent years and shows a similar downward trend.
Ambush or targeted attacks similar to those in Dallas or Baton Rouge typically make up a small portion of deaths and assaults. Of the 50,212 officers assaulted in 2015, about 28 percent sustained injuries, according to the FBI. And only 0.5 percent, or 240 of the 50,212, were assaulted in ambush situations or targeted attacks. Most assaults occur in circumstances in which officers are doing their jobs such as during disturbance calls or while attempting an arrest.
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The White House issued a statement on the order saying that it will ensure that anyone who tries to harm an officer will be “aggressively prosecuted.” But experts aren’t sure what federal enforcement of these crimes would accomplish that state governments aren’t already doing. Assaulting a federal officer — an FBI agent, for example — is already illegal, and the majority of states have strict penalties that are heavily enforced. For example, in New Hampshire, killing a police officer is already a capital offense. In New York, assaulting an officer is a class C felony carrying a sentence of up to 15 years.
“There is a pile of protection for police officers now; even simple assault elevates into an aggravated assault,” said Jon Shane, a professor of policing policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former officer. “Most crimes occur at a state level and are prosecuted at a state level. What is this legislation going to do at the federal level that hasn’t been done at the local level?”
Some law-enforcement groups think stricter laws are needed. States such as Kentucky and Louisiana have passed or are considering legislation to make violence against police a hate crime, which would carry harsher penalties. (Civil rights groups have criticized the bills for going too far.) Police groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police, have called for similar legislation at the federal level.
Critics of Trump’s order worry that it could lead to crackdowns on legitimate forms of protest against the police. Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police officer, said “tough on crime” initiatives can damage trust between departments and communities.
“It will have a chilling effect,” Kenney said. “That would drive a much deeper wedge between police and communities where they’re already struggling.”
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Trump’s order wouldn’t do anything about accidental deaths, which account for more than half of all on-duty deaths most years, according to FBI data. Traffic-related incidents were the leading cause of officer deaths in 2015 and have been a leading cause for over most of the past decade. A substantial number of law enforcement officers also die each year from job-related illnesses. Police officers have a higher rate of work-related illnesses than most other occupations, with 21 percent of nonfatal injuries and illnesses resulting from overexertion. Some researchers are looking into whether shift length has an impact on officer wellness and safety.
Some experts think other reforms would do more to protect officers. One initiative of former President Barack Obama’s task force on “21st Century Policing,” established in 2014, recommended implementing scientifically supported shift lengths in police departments, boosting officer training and education, and improving body armor to promote officer wellness. Most police groups agree on mandatory use of body armor and seat belts to enhance officer safety.
Trump’s executive order is part of a larger effort to make good on his “law and order” promises from the campaign. In two other executive orders signed the same day, Trump established a task force to address violent crime, illegal immigration and drug trafficking and called for stronger enforcement of federal laws in relation to transnational criminal organizations. And after being sworn in as attorney general, Jeff Sessions pledged to address what he called a “dangerous permanent trend” of rising crime. (There has been a significant increase in murder in many big cities in the past two years, but overall rates of crime remain near multi-decade lows.)
Trump’s approach to criminal justice has drawn mixed reviews from law enforcement. The nomination of Sessions drew strong support from police-officer groups. But other groups have criticized the get-tough approach from Trump and Sessions and have argued that long prison sentences can make crime worse by damaging communities and eroding trust. The Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, an organization made up of around 200 current and former police chiefs and other officials, released a five-point brief containing policy suggestions for Trump on crime reduction. The group highlighted community policing, saying that tensions between communities and police had sparked a “false debate” that citizens and politicians have to choose between support for law enforcement or their community.
“It almost becomes a false narrative that you have to choose between Blue Lives Matter laws or reducing injuries with better technology and other solutions,” said Ronal Serpas, the organization’s co-chairman. “When we spend more time and money on research to understand the front end of these relationships between officers and the community, we have much better success in reducing officer injuries.”