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Under Trump, rank-and-file law enforcement — on the border, on the streets — will have more power than ever

Beat cops and field agents will be in control.

Riot police block a protest in Charlotte, NC.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty

When Donald Trump accepted the nomination of the Republican Party for president, he made America a promise. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he said in July. “Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored."

On January 20, 2017, Trump will indeed take the presidential oath of office. And while crime won’t instantaneously cease, something very important will change nonetheless.

Public safety officers — rank-and-file police officers and immigration agents — will be in the driver’s seat of making public safety policy.

It will be impossible to notice, at least at first. It won’t be something emanating from Trump or his White House itself. Instead, it’ll happen in communities across America, as front-line agents test their autonomy and determine how they’ll use their newfound power.

Many law enforcement agents felt oppressed by the Obama administration. Under Trump, they’ll be venerated — granted cultural deference and policy independence. Public safety in America is about to be defined, to a much larger degree, as the safety and happiness of America’s police.

Rank-and-file officers are both an important political force behind Trump and an embodiment of Trumpism

Trump’s nascent governing coalition has few organized interest groups — very few entities that have experience using leverage with government officials to get what they want, and that actually have leverage with these particular officials.

Accordingly, the organized interests that do have clout in Trumpland have less competition (and more influence) than they would under another president.

One of those tentpoles of the Trump coalition is law enforcement: the unions representing local police and federal immigration agents, and the rank-and-file, front-line public safety officers of America.

The unions representing Border Patrol and ICE agents made their first presidential endorsements to back him. Trump appeared on the Border Patrol union’s podcast in July. The president of the Fraternal Order of Police testified in support of attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions’s nomination hearing.

Donald Trump speaks to the New York Veteran Police Association.
Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty

In one (unofficial) survey, three-quarters of law enforcement officers backed Trump. Before the election, San Antonio police got disciplined for wearing Make America Great Again hats when they came to greet Trump on a campaign stop. After the election, a University of Virginia police officer was forced to resign after he used his car’s PA system to blast “Make America Great Again” through campus.

The enthusiasm is mutual. Trump loves talking about how wonderful police officers are; during the vice presidential debate, Mike Pence made a point of defending police honor.

It’s not just a matter of brute interest group politics. Treating law enforcement officers as experts and heroes is crucial to the vision of domestic policy that Trump and Pence are putting forward.

Before there was “Blue Lives Matter,” there was the thin blue line — the emblem of law enforcement, and a shorthand term for the internal culture of a police unit. The term comes from the military: a “thin red line” guarding against overwhelming attack. For Trump, whose presidency is built on the idea that America needs to start getting tough and stop asking questions, law enforcement officers are exactly the right heroes to elevate — and the right allies to court.

And they know exactly what they want from him.

Many law enforcement officers feel they’ve been handcuffed by Obama — and they’re about to get released

The Border Patrol union’s podcast — called The Green Line, a Border Patrol-uniform-appropriate spin on the “thin blue line” — advertises itself as the “truth straight from the border.” When Trump appeared on the podcast in July, the hosts were especially concerned that he would “ensure the truth makes it from the Border Patrol agents to the White House.”

Trump was perfectly willing to defer. “They have tremendous knowledge, and I’m going to count on their knowledge,” he said toward the end of the interview. “If and when I’m elected, I’m going to be relying very much on the professionalism of the Border Patrol to tell us what to do. They know better than anybody. They know better than any consultant you can hire.”

This is a quietly radical vision of policymaking. It’s a vision in which, because rank-and-file law enforcement officers know best what it takes to keep communities safe (after all, they live it) everyone else — including the public and their own superiors — should yield to their judgment. It’s a vision of policymaking made on the front lines.

Border patrol agent on ATV John Moore/Getty Images

Rank-and-file police officers have long been skeptical of top-down attempts to dictate what they ought to be doing. Even as law enforcement executives have started to think of policing as proactive, rank-and-file officers often still think of policing as going out there, solving crimes, and catching criminals — and the fact that they’re the ones doing that work makes them skeptical that the executives really understand what policing is all about.

Under President Obama, that tension has broken out into the open. The result is something that Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, discussed during his confirmation hearing: Agents don’t even feel it’s worth it to try to do their jobs.

SEN. JOHN HOEVEN: How do you make sure you secure the border? Talk about the wall, people, in terms of technology — how do you make sure we have a secure border?

KELLY: Perhaps the most important thing right now, as I have heard — and this is not briefed out of Homeland Security; I am not talking with them now. But anecdotally, but it’s a lot of anecdotal, is: allowing the great men and women in the law enforcement business at DHS, particularly down at the border, allow them to do the job according to the law.

I had an interesting experience just a few months ago. I was down on the border in El Paso, off active duty, working for the Department of Defense down there looking at some things.

I was talking to some Border Patrol men and women, five of them, on the border. Maybe 200 yards down. There’s a big fence there — call it a wall, I mean, it is pretty substantial. It’s not a chain-link fence. It’s 18 feet tall, and pretty seriously constructed. But I saw half a dozen or so people jump over the fence.

And I’m standing there, just expecting the officers to jump in their cars, put their lights on and dash down there. And ... [shrugs]

And they said, “What’s the use?”

I was surprised. That’s not good for morale.

So I think the number one thing would be, in accordance with the law, let people who are tasked to protect the border do the job.

Kelly is placing himself firmly on one side of an ongoing fight in immigration policy, between the Obama administration and its critics (often including immigration agents themselves, through their unions) over the administration’s use of “prosecutorial discretion.”

The critics contend that, in the name of setting “priorities,” DHS officials are putting such onerous restrictions on rank-and-file immigration agents that their ability to do their job in the way they see fit is eliminated, and their morale destroyed. Under Trump, Kelly implies, the agents will be back in control.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (responsible for deporting immigrants from the interior of the US) complain they’re being prevented from deporting most of the unauthorized immigrants they apprehend; Border Patrol agents complain they’re still being told to “catch and release” immigrants in particular circumstances, rather than detain them.

Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Sessions, diagnosed American police with a similar set of complaints. Sessions believes that the biggest problem in American policing is that police officers are being unfairly criticized and scrutinized by the public, political leaders, and (in some cases) their own chiefs — and are therefore being intimidated out of doing their jobs the way they need to be done.

“Morale has been affected,” Sessions told Sen. John Cornyn of Texas during his confirmation hearing. “And it’s affected the crime rates in Baltimore and the crime rates in Chicago. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

NYPD officers turn their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio in protest during the funeral for NYPD officer Wenjian Liu in 2014.
NYPD officers turn their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio in protest during the funeral for NYPD officer Wenjian Liu in 2014.
Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News via Getty

The villains in the two narratives are different. On immigration, officers are being prevented from doing their jobs by dictates from above (agency management and political appointees); in criminal justice, they’re being prevented by agitators from the outside, waiting to jump on (as FBI Director James Comey once put it) the next “viral video.”

But in both cases, the Trump administration’s solution is to give law enforcement agents themselves more control over how they do their jobs.

Officer-led policymaking will change law enforcement — in ways that won’t be immediately visible

That control might start growing the minute Trump is inaugurated — or it might have started already, quietly, as the Obama administration packed up its bags. (When the people at the bottom of the organization are making the decisions, the understaffing of top levels of the executive branch isn’t a problem; if anything, it’s a virtue.) But it won’t be immediately visible to anyone but the people involved in the interaction themselves.

Border Patrol agents will have wider authority to apprehend and detain immigrants within the 100-mile zone that constitutes the US “border.” They’ll probably be allowed again to tag along with local law enforcement officers, as “translators,” and ask about the immigration status of those for whom they’re translating; they’ll probably be allowed to detain more people who are trying to seek asylum or might qualify for it.

ICE agents, for their part, look to be freed of the Obama-era memos setting strict “priorities” for which immigrants ought to be detained and deported, and which ones ought to be released. They’ll be free to go into schools, courts, and hospitals to apprehend immigrants, if that’s what they feel they need to do.

They might recover the ability to deport immigrants who currently benefit from deferred action; they’ll almost certainly be able to detain and deport parents of US citizens without many questions from Washington. They’ll likely regain a new supply of immigrants from local law enforcement agencies.

ICE officer putting on his SWAT gear Getty Images

For local police, the situation is somewhat different; their management isn’t changing. But to the extent to which police ever felt dissuaded from doing their jobs by the federal government’s lack of support for law enforcement, that burden will disappear.

In its place will be an attitude toward policing marked by absence. Sessions’s Department of Justice appears likely to refrain from investigating (much less suing) departments it might otherwise have investigated for civil rights violations. It’s also likely that Sessions and Trump won’t share the interest that Obama and his attorneys general had in supporting research into police-community relations, and shaping existing research into best practices.

These changes could last long after the Trump administration leaves office. Police culture is difficult to change from the outside, which puts a great deal of pressure on recruiting and accepting new agents into the force — and what kind of people are attracted to the profession of law enforcement. The recruits enthusiastic about the possibility of developing better relations with the community aren’t those who are likely to be drawn to a Kelly-led DHS or a Sessions-condoned local department. Those who are drawn to the romance of the thin blue (or green) line, meanwhile, will no longer be dissuaded.

Taking the “public” out of public safety

It’s true, to an important extent, that rank-and-file officers have insight and information that people sitting at desks don’t — and that they need some autonomy to do their jobs well. Law enforcement is about discretion, and discretion is about discerning the particular circumstances of a case that make a particular response appropriate. Top-down management of law enforcement can lead to pointless arrest quotas or unhelpful security lapses.

But the blue-line model of public safety that the Trump administration embraces goes beyond autonomy. It’s about putting rank-and-file officers fully in control — allowing them to determine exactly what is appropriate and needed to do their job, rather than weighing their needs against the needs of other people in the community.

Whose safety?
Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty

Law enforcement officers are one of many groups of people whose lives are affected by public safety policy. They have skin in the game and an understandable interest in protecting it. Law enforcement officers often candidly agree that as far as they’re concerned, their No. 1 job is to get home safe, and they’ll do what it takes to ensure that. They are, essentially, a class — especially because clashes often come in the form of labor/management disputes.

That means their interests are often independent of the broader question of preventing crime and promoting safety. The reticence of many officers to adopt body or dashboard cameras, for example, isn’t just about their interactions with the public — some agents are worried that managers will use the cameras as a way to spy on their subordinates during their shifts.

Sometimes interest shades into ideology. Immigration agents under Obama saw their job as rounding up unauthorized immigrants; their Obama administration superiors saw their job as protecting the public from immigrants who committed crimes. That made the question of “morale” a question of who got to make policy.

But the No. 1 goal of public safety policy isn’t to keep officers safe and happy. And when a department is determining whether to use body cameras, the well-being of line officers is just one of many considerations (transparency, the privacy of community members, the department’s liability in civil lawsuits) that the department needs to weigh.

Think about the role of teachers in the education system — another case in which public employees find themselves arguing with policymakers about how best to do their jobs.

Teachers argue that they have important insights into the learning and development of their students, their expertise should be taken seriously by their management, and they need the flexibility to serve each student in the way they see fit.

That doesn’t mean that teachers are not, also, people with their own interests — even the most dedicated teachers have an interest in keeping their hours reasonable and their classrooms quiet and calm. Those interests aren’t usually in conflict with getting students to learn things, but they can be. And an equilibrium that might suit the needs of teachers as a class — like paying underperforming teachers to do nothing in “rubber rooms” — might not be the best thing for students at all.

In the classroom, that seems absurd. In policing, it’s already happening.

Ninety-three percent of police officers told the Pew Research Center (in a survey conducted in 2016 and released this week) that members of their department have started worrying more about their safety as a result of recent high-profile “encounters” between African Americans and police; 76 percent said officers were less likely to use force against suspects even when they thought it was appropriate; and 72 percent said they were less likely to stop and question suspicious-looking people.

In some cities, the attitude is pervasive — and is linked to a rise in crime. Criminologist Jeff Asher has shown that in Baltimore and Chicago, high-profile police incidents led to less “proactive policing” (defined as the quantity of drug arrests); shootings got more frequent shortly after that.

Officers told the Chicago Tribune in November that they’re inclined to wait for 911 calls to come in, rather than engaging in proactive policing to prevent crime before it starts.

“If they feel that they're going to get thrown under the bus when they do something,” Dennis Rosenbaum, a professor of criminology at the University of Illinois Chicago, told the Tribune, “why would you proactively get out of your car or stop a group of kids who ... seem to be up to no good?" John Kelly’s anecdote indicates that something similar is happening to border patrol agents.

Blue Lives Matter is an appropriate agenda for agents and their representatives. It is not a sufficient agenda for policymaking as a whole. Public safety policy has to ensure that all lives matter (and, by extension, accept that some lives, often black and brown, are treated as if they don’t).

The Trump administration can’t give rank-and-file law enforcement absolute power or total impunity. But it’s made it clear, to the public and to the law enforcement officers themselves, that they have the tremendous responsibility of keeping American civilization upright — and tremendous power to go with it.

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