President Donald Trump is planning to sign an executive order that will lay out several new initiatives focused on police reform, including the creation of national standards for use-of-force as well as tracking police misconduct, according to a civil rights lawyer who plans to be at the signing and testify before the Senate this week.
S. Lee Merritt, an attorney who represents a number of black families whose loved ones — including Antwon Rose and Botham Jean — have been killed by police officers, shared the details of the plans with the PBS NewsHour on Sunday after speaking with White House officials. He told the NewsHour that he was told the president also plans to meet privately with a number of black families who have been affected by police violence on Tuesday.
The president is expected to sign the executive order Tuesday during a Rose Garden event featuring Merritt and Attorney General William Barr, the lawyer said.
The White House declined to comment on an executive order on police reform.
According to Merritt, the executive order would have five key sections:
- a statement acknowledging that some law enforcement officers have gravely misused their authority and have caused communities and particularly black communities to mistrust them;
- an order to establish a national certification and credentialing system for law enforcement agencies;
- an order to create a federal database to track officers accused of wrongdoing like excessive use-of-force;
- a directive to the secretary of Health and Human Services to work on encouraging police departments to involve mental health officials when dealing with issues of mental health, homelessness, and addiction;
- a directive to encourage Congress to pass legislation related to policing. (Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus introduced the Justice in Policing Act last week.)
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Merritt, who also plans to meet with Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill and testify before the Senate on Tuesday. “It’s too incremental to have, you know, sweeping impact. But it’s things that we need to have done among the myriad of things that we need to address this crisis. It’s not a cure. But it is a way to deal with the damage from the fallout.”
As recently as Thursday, when he hosted a roundtable in Dallas, Trump supported the use of “force, but force with compassion,” and dismissed what he described as “radical efforts” to “defund, dismantle, and disband the police,” referring to the movement calling for reallocating law enforcement funding to social services.
Merritt stressed that the country needed more than an executive order to fundamentally change its system of policing. Black men and boys are two and half times more likely than white men and boys to be killed by the police, and black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans. Merritt added that while he welcomes the proposed executive order, he also supports Congressional action like the Justice in Policing Act proposed by congressional Democrats, though they will need to convince Republicans to sign onto that bill or work to get a compromise bill passed.
“We encourage them to sit down with each other,” Merritt said of Republicans and Democrats. “We need actual change.”
He also added that the Democrats’ bill, while filled with great ideas, was more of a wish list that likely could not be passed and signed into law.
“The community doesn’t need another wish list or speech or kente cloth,” Merritt said, referring to the traditional African fabric that Democrats drew criticism for wearing during a news conference last week as they introduced their legislation.
When asked whether he had reservations about working with Trump, who has been called a racist by some for his words and actions towards African Americans and people of color, Merritt said he is most focused on getting justice for the families he represents.
“We are the deadliest and the most incarcerated nation on the planet and so that’s not a partisan issue,” Merritt said. “There are steps that we need to take immediately to reduce the number of times that our police use force. We believe that that’s rooted in a war on drugs, a militarized style of policing that is key to America to stop. And, whoever is offering solutions, are willing to work together across the aisle to change the actual laws that allow for this pattern of brutality and injustice and lack of accountability, then we’re willing to work with them.”
Trump, who ran on supporting law and order and tougher policing measures, has been criticized for weeks for not talking explicitly about police brutality and systemic racism as the country goes through a national reckoning on racism spurred by the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
If the president signs the executive order on Tuesday, it would be his most pointed action to regulate policing since being elected.
Merritt said he plans to travel to Washington, D.C,. along with the families of Arbery, Jean, Antwon Rose, Darius Tarver, and Margarita Brooks.
Arbery, a black 25-year-old man, was killed in late February after a group of white men chased him through a Georgia neighborhood in broad daylight as Arbery was jogging. The men, who have been arrested and are now facing charges, said they believed he was a burglar.
Tarver was 23-year-old black student who was tased and fatally shot by police in January after waving a knife and frying pan at officers. Merritt said when he encountered police, Tarver had just been released prematurely from the hospital after getting into a near fatal car accident and sustained a traumatic brain injury.
Rose, a black 17-year-old, was fatally shot in East Pittsburgh in June 2018 after a white police officer pulled over a car he was riding in with another teenager. The car, a Chevrolet Cruze, matched the description of a vehicle involved in a nearby drive-by shooting a few minutes earlier. The officer who shot Rose, who was a passenger in the car, was charged with homicide but later acquitted.
Jean, a 26-year-old black man, was shot and killed in 2018 in his apartment in Texas by a white police officer who said she believed she was in her own apartment and mistook Jean for an intruder. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Margarita Brooks, a 30-year-old white woman, was shot and killed last year after a police officer responding to a welfare check on her shot her while trying to shoot a charging dog.
“I’m going to Washington with these families to encourage lawmakers to pass bills that would actually help these families,” Merritt said. “These are the families pleading with both sides of the aisle for real, substantive change that will result in far less police killings.”