President Donald Trump claimed Tuesday that his predecessor did not take action on reforming police — even though it was under Trump that several Obama-era changes were scrapped.
“President Obama and Vice President Biden never even tried to fix this during their eight-year period. The reason they didn’t try is they had no idea how to do it,” Trump said in the White House Rose Garden before he signed an executive order that encourages police departments to adopt high standards, like banning chokeholds unless the life of the officer is at risk, and to create a database of excessive force complaints.
But Obama, the nation’s first Black president, who confronted and addressed race and racism frequently, did take action to reform police and try to reduce bias in law enforcement. The Trump administration is well aware of that, too: It unraveled those changes.
“He said President Obama did nothing on police reform, but the fact is they made a lot of progress and President Trump rolled it back,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday.
Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, said, “Donald Trump says President Obama and Vice President Biden didn’t do anything on policing reform, but he knows that isn’t true because he has spent the past three years tearing down the very reforms the Obama-Biden administration pursued.”
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In August 2017, Trump reversed an Obama policy that banned the military from selling surplus equipment to police, a measure that had been put in place amid criticism over the armored vehicles, tear gas and assault rifles used to control protests after the police killing of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
In addition, in September 2017, the Justice Department said it would stop the Obama-era practice of investigating police departments and issuing public reports about their failings. For example, the Justice Department had investigated the Ferguson Police Department and found unconstitutional, unlawful and racist behavior and policing within the department.
Those reports were used to demand change and negotiate consent decrees, legal agreements between local police and the Justice Department mandating reforms enforceable by courts.
When he served as Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions made it clear early on that he opposed consent decrees like the one struck in Ferguson, and he ordered a review of the Justice Department’s more than a dozen consent decrees. Sessions said they “reduced morale”of police.
Sessions spoke out against a consent decree being finalized in early 2017 in Baltimore, saying he feared it would make the city less safe, and his Justice Department sought to delay it. (A federal judge declined to go along.) And in 2018, Sessions gave a speech in Chicago calling a consent decree between Illinois’ attorney general and Chicago Police Department a “colossal mistake,” even though Obama’s Justice Department had found widespread use of excessive force aimed at people of color.
Shortly before the president fired him amid complaints over his handling of the Russia investigation, Sessions issued a memo dramatically limiting the Justice Department’s practice of using consent decrees. The Justice Department, he wrote, “should exercise special caution before entering into a consent decree,” for fear of depriving states of their rights and control over their budgets.
Marianna Sotomayor contributed.