Accepting the Republican nomination for president in Cleveland over the summer, Donald Trump laid out a bleak vision of a country overrun with criminals and wracked with violence. More than 3,600 people had been gunned down in Chicago since Barack Obama took office, Trump claimed, adding that more than 180,000 illegal immigrants wander American streets threatening and intimidating law-abiding taxpayers. And, perhaps most importantly, Trump asserted, there’s a war on the American police officer — a war our new president has indicated he intends to win.
“In the days after Dallas, we have seen continued threats and violence against our law enforcement officials,” Trump said at his Republican nomination, citing the ambush attack that left five people dead and national law enforcement communities in shock. Less than two weeks later, in the run-up to the convention, another gunman killed three more officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Trump claimed that the number of officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50 percent since 2014. (There were 135 officer fatalities in 2016, up 10 percent from 123 in 2015, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, although ambush killings themselves are on the rise.)
“Law officers have been shot or killed in recent days in Georgia, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, and Tennessee,” Trump continued. “An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans. I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order in our country.”
There was always a dog whistle in this modern invocation of law-and-order politics. The implication is that the protesters who flooded city streets in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s 2014 death in Ferguson, Missouri, were waging a “war on cops,” rather than exercising their right as taxpaying citizens to petition the government.
But that whistle has crescendoed to a constitutional battle cry. On Thursday, Trump signed an executive order directing his administration not only to pursue new protections and enforce existing ones for state, local, and federal law enforcement, but also to “define new federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”
In addition to mandating the aggressive prosecution of crimes against law enforcement, Trump’s executive order gives the Department of Justice the power to reframe “resisting arrest”—a charge that some argue is an encroachment on a citizen’s right to self-defense—as a felony. Like his fellow Republican lawmakers at the state level, the Trump administration wants to criminalize protest.
For activists, this is alarming, especially given the state of Trump’s Department of Justice. Trump’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has vocally supported harsh criminal justice policies that disproportionately affect minorities, from mandatory minimum drug convictions to civil asset forfeiture.
Trump declared that “a new era of justice” began with Sessions’ confirmation, but there’s a problem: The two are fighting threats that don’t really exist. Sessions can say “we have a crime problem” as much as he wants (and he did so immediately following his confirmation), but violent crime has been on the decline since the 1990s (according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting program and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, rates of violent crimes like murder, sexual assault, and robbery have all declined sharply since 1993). And while data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund showed a huge increase in ambush attacks on law enforcement in 2016 that correlates with the Dallas and Baton Rouge incidents Trump cited, on a macro level, those kinds of targeted attacks on police officers have fallen sharply over the last 30 years.
“President Trump intends to build task forces to investigate and stop national trends that don’t exist,” American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jeffrey Robinson said in a statement. “We have seen historic lows in the country’s crime rate and a downward trend in killings against police officers since the 1980s.… There are some cities that have had recent rises in violent crime, and they deserve help. And every locality in America wants to further reduce crime and violence. But task forces premised on misinformation, and looking in the wrong places for the wrong problems, are not the answer.”
Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice aggressively pursued measures to break America’s 40-year cycle of policing and incarceration: the pursuit of sentencing reform, the deployment of clemency, and investigations into police departments in cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, and Chicago. Sessions’ appointment doesn’t just mean those initiatives are probably finished. According to a Brennan Center for Justice report, Sessions would likely roll back this “overreach” in the federal oversight of police departments too. Indeed, Sessions’ record suggests he will be lenient in identifying, investigating, and punishing prosecutorial misconduct, a problem that affects young African Americans more than any other group. And even if the the Sessions-led Department of Justice identifies patterns of aggressive civil rights violations by local police forces in the future, it’s likely that Sessions would spurn the use the consent decrees, which the Department of Justice has used to catalyze structural changes in community policing for years.
But beyond the appointment of Sessions and the general thrust of his executive order, it’s the “new federal crimes” line that’s likely filling civil-rights activists with dread. The language, along with the mandatory minimum sentences for crimes against law enforcement agents, makes it clear that, in Trump’s eyes, the police are an ultra-protected class. This wouldn’t be a first in American politics, especially following the ambush attacks on police in the aftermath of the Brown protests. In the last few years, states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Colorado, and Kentucky have all pursued “Blue Lives Matter” bills designed to designate law enforcement and first responders as protected under hate crimes statutes, while upping penalties on everything from resisting arrest to verbal abuse.
But these efforts reflect a strained and dangerous logic: Law enforcement—the very agents who wield the awesome power and responsibility of the state—are beyond reproach. In Trump’s America, the mantra of “Blue Lives Matter” has become domestic policy.