How Biden’s executive order will impact policing practices

Two years after George Floyd's death, President Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order aimed at overhauling policing practices. Among other actions, it revises use-of-force policies for federal law enforcement agencies and creates a national registry of officer misconduct. Christy Lopez, of the Georgetown University Law Center, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now Geoff Bennett has a closer look at the president's executive order on policing.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Judy, the president's executive order, among other actions, revises use of force policies for federal law enforcement and creates a national registry of officer misconduct. It also encourages local agencies to change their practices regarding use of force and no-knock warrants.

    To discuss what kind of effect these changes could have, I'm joined by Christy Lopez of Georgetown Law School. She worked at the Justice Department to change police practices. And she led the department's work on reforming the Ferguson Police Department.

    It's great to have you with us.

    And this executive order, it instructs federal law enforcement agencies to revise some of their policies. The president can't order local police agencies to follow suit. He doesn't have the authority. But the White House's hope is that this could be a blueprint.

    Is that an effective approach, do you think?

    Christy Lopez, Former Department of Justice Attorney: I think it is an effective approach.

    At least, it's the most you can do at the federal level to regulate policing, which, of course, is so state and locally regulated in the United States. And these are really strong federal standards. So they couldn't — they have the potential to be a transformative blueprint.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Do you think localities will be inclined to follow suit?

    On all of the reporting I have done on this police reform push, I get the sense that these policies mean one thing on paper, but, if they don't make their way into the culture of a police department, they're effectively meaningless.

  • Christy Lopez:

    Oh, I think you have hit on the key question here.

    These are, in the end, just words on a page. And what's going to be really important is for there to be the political will at the state and local level to follow through on these measures. And that's going to require people, advocates, people who care about effective policing and respectful policing, to keep doing the work they have been doing, so that state and local agencies will actually avail themselves of the resources this executive order makes available.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    This order also directs the Justice Department, as I mentioned, to create a new national law enforcement accountability database, which would keep track of substantiated misconduct claims and disciplinary records of officers.

    So the idea is to prevent officers who are fired for misconduct in one jurisdiction from finding jobs someplace else. But, as I understand it, there's already a privately run database, and only about one-third of police departments ever check it when hiring new officers.

    So, how will this new system be different or more effective?

  • Christy Lopez:

    I think that this new database — and I do think it's a really important accountability database.

    And having it be run through the federal government, rather than a private entity, will give it both legitimacy and elevate its status, people's knowledge about it. And it should result in more agencies entering information into it, and in agencies checking it before they hire an officer.

    And there's going to be incentives. The executive order requires incentives to provide agencies technical assistance and guidance on how to actually use this database, as well as another really important database that is in the executive order, the use of force database, which has the potential, again, to be quite important.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The president is signing this executive order because his overhaul, that sort of sweeping police reform push, fell apart because it was blocked by Republicans in Congress.

    On this executive order, the White House says it consulted with progressive activists, but it also consulted with law enforcement groups. The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police, both organizations put out statements in support of this executive order.

    And there will be people who will see that and say, there's no way this executive order can be significant if you have law enforcement coming out in support of it.

    What do you say to that argument?

  • Christy Lopez:

    I definitely understand that argument and that concern.

    And I actually — I mean, I have looked — I have looked at this language, and I think there's actually some really important stuff in here. And I think part of the reason that law enforcement is signing on is because they're feeling the political pressure at the state and local level to support efforts like this.

    It's just going to mean that people need to really work to make sure the words on this page are actually implemented. I think that's what's going to be key here. And if they look at what is in the order, I think they will see for themselves that it's really significant, yes, despite the fact that so many law enforcement agencies signed on.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    In the minute that remains, I just want to draw on your personal experience working at the DOJ and reforming the Ferguson Police Department.

    What three or four things did you pull from that that might be instructive for other police agencies, local police agencies that might want to take a deeper look at their own practices?

  • Christy Lopez:

    So, I think one of the things that's really important here is actually the technical assistance that the executive order requires be provided to departments creating alternative responders for persons in mental health crisis.

    I think that's going to be a potentially really important part of this. I think that the provisions requiring training on active bystandership and on de-escalation could be very important. And I think the provisions around data collection and transparency have the potential to be really transformative as well.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Georgetown Law School Professor Christy Lopez.

    Christy, thanks so much for your time and for your insights.

  • Christy Lopez:

    Thanks so much.

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