Trump’s Stop-and-Frisk Agenda – The Atlantic


Even as Donald Trump relies on unprecedented support from Black and Latino voters, he is embracing policies that would expose their communities to much greater police surveillance and enforcement. The policies that Trump is pledging to implement around crime and policing in a second presidential term would reverse the broad trend of police reform that accelerated after the murder of George Floyd, four years ago today.

Trump has endorsed a suite of proposals that would provide cities with more funds to hire police officers; pressure officials in major cities to employ more aggressive policing tactics, such as “stop and frisk,” in high-crime neighborhoods; and strengthen legal protection for law-enforcement officers accused of misconduct.

“I suspect that in many places, you would see policing that is much harsher, much more punitive, [and] not nearly as concerned about the racial disparities in the way that policing happens,” Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department attorney who led multiple federal investigations of racial bias in police departments around the country, told me. “All of those things that we have been working for years to dismantle will be built up again.”

The cumulative effect of Trump’s proposals would be to push local police departments toward arresting more people. That dynamic would inevitably increase the number of Black and Latino people entangled in the criminal-justice system, after years of declines in the total number of arrests.

The magnitude of Trump’s plans on policing and crime has drawn little attention in the presidential race so far. But on virtually every front, Trump proposes to use federal influence to reverse the efforts toward police reform that have gained ground over roughly the past decade, and especially since Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020 spurred the largest nationwide protests since the 1960s. “We will give our police back their power and their respect,” Trump declared in his appearance at the National Rifle Association convention last weekend.

In a campaign video last year, Trump laid out a sweeping second-term agenda on crime and policing. He promised “a record investment” in federal funds to help cities hire and train more police. He said he would require local law-enforcement agencies receiving federal grants to implement an array of hard-line “proven policing measures” including “stop-and-frisk, strictly enforcing existing gun laws, cracking down on the open use of illegal drugs,” and cooperating with federal immigration agencies “to arrest and deport criminal aliens.”

Trump has also pledged to launch federal civil-rights investigations against the reform-oriented progressive prosecutors (or “radical Marxist prosecutors,” in Trump’s terms) who have been elected in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, among other big cities. He has promised to pursue the death penalty for drug dealers and has repeatedly called on police to shoot shoplifters: “Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store,” he said in one speech.

Perhaps most dramatically, Trump has indicated that he will dispatch the National Guard and other federal law-enforcement personnel “to restore law and order” in cities where “local law enforcement refuses to act.” Trump, in fact, has said on multiple occasions that one of his biggest regrets from his first term is that he deferred to city officials, who resisted his calls to deploy the National Guard or other federal law-enforcement forces onto their streets. Trump and Stephen Miller, his top immigration adviser, have also said they intend to dispatch the National Guard to major cities to participate in his planned mass-deportation campaign.

Trump has not provided detail on his crime proposals; some experts say that makes it difficult to evaluate their potential impact. “Reading over the Trump plan, I would say it is a mix of the good, the bad, the puzzling, and the incoherent,” Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago’s crime lab, told me.

Trump’s most frequent promise has been his pledge “to indemnify all police officers and law-enforcement officials,” as he put in his NRA speech, “to protect them from being destroyed by radical-left lunatics who are angry that they are taking strong action on crime.”

Exactly how Trump, at the federal level, could provide more legal protection to police officers is unclear. Experts point out that police officers already are shielded by the doctrine of “qualified immunity” against litigation, which the Supreme Court has upheld in multiple cases. Even in cases where law-enforcement agencies admit to misconduct, the damages are virtually always paid by the city, not the individual police officer.

In 2021, with President Joe Biden’s support, House Democrats did pass police-reform legislation, named the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, that limited qualified immunity and would have made suing police for misconduct easier, but that bill died in the Senate. Some states and local governments have since moved to weaken qualified immunity as a defense in state courts. Trump appears to envision passing national legislation that codifies broad protection for police and preempts any state effort to retrench it.

Trump could also face problems precisely defining the policing tactics he wants to require local officials to adopt as a condition for receiving federal law-enforcement grants. Trump, for instance, has repeatedly praised the stop-and-frisk program launched in New York City by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Under that program, the New York Police Department stopped large numbers of people—many of them young Black and Latino men—and claimed to be searching for drugs or guns. But eventually a federal district judge declared that the program violated the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure, as well as its guarantee of equal protection, and the city later abandoned the tactic.

Lopez, now a professor at Georgetown University Law School, says that Trump can’t order other police departments to precisely replicate the aggressive stop-and-frisk practices from New York City that have been found unconstitutional. But, she says, tying federal aid to stop-and-frisk and the other hard-line policies Trump is promoting could nonetheless exert a powerful signaling effect on local law enforcement.

“At the federal level, you can use your influence, your dollars, your training to encourage practices that are more or less alienating to communities,” she told me. Trump’s touting of stop-and-frisk, Lopez added, is “a signal that his administration is going to really promote some of the most aggressive, alienating practices that police departments have partaken in.”

Reinforcing the funding message is the approach Trump has laid out for civil-rights oversight of policing. Trump’s Justice Department stopped nearly all federal investigations into allegations of bias in police enforcement: His administration launched only one investigation of a police department (a single unit in Springfield, Massachusetts), abandoned a consent decree that Barack Obama’s Justice Department had negotiated for reforms in Chicago, and ultimately effectively banned department lawyers from seeking further consent decrees with other localities.

Now Trump is pledging to instead pursue federal civil-rights investigations against the reform prosecutors who are challenging local policing and charging practices. That shift in emphasis would likely provide another nudge for cities toward more intrusive enforcement approaches. The rollback “in federal oversight of policing” that Trump pursued in his first term, Lopez says, “will look like child’s play if Trump is reelected.”

Public-safety analysts sympathetic to Trump’s vision say it represents a necessary course correction after the array of criminal-justice reforms that policy makers have advanced roughly since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Rafael Mangual, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, argues that, partly because of those reforms, policing has “become a much harder job to do.” Mangual agrees that Trump’s agenda could result in more arrests of minority young people, but says that would be an acceptable cost for improving safety in the low-income, heavily minority neighborhoods where crime is often most prevalent. “If you are talking about things like adding more police and having them be more proactive in the field, I think it is absolutely the case, especially in high-crime communities, what you are going to see is improvement on those measures,” he told me.

But critics believe that Trump’s approach would reduce police accountability and increase incarceration rates without providing more public safety. The unifying idea in Trump’s proposals seems to be “that all we need for public safety is more enforcement and punishment,” says Daniela Gilbert, director of Redefining Public Safety at the Vera Institute for Justice, a liberal police-reform advocacy group. “If that was effective, we’d already have safer communities.”

Ludwig agrees with Mangual that low-income minority neighborhoods would gain the most from a reduction in crime. But, like Gilbert, Ludwig says it’s not clear that the agenda Trump has laid out would achieve that goal. “He’s saying two things: more policing and more aggressive policing,” Ludwig told me. “I think the more policing [is] good, the more aggressive policing—not helpful.”

Although some other criminologists disagree, Ludwig says the evidence is that hiring and training more police does lower crime, and that those benefits will be felt “disproportionately in low-income communities of color.” But, Ludwig adds, the aspects of Trump’s agenda that are designed to pressure cities to stop and arrest more people for nonviolent offenses or to participate in deportation efforts would likely prove counterproductive by heightening tension and reducing cooperation between police and minority communities.

The backdrop for this policy debate is an extremely volatile political environment on crime.

Polls consistently show that significantly more voters say they trust Trump than Biden to handle crime. Although Biden usually leads on that question among nonwhite voters, even a substantial minority of Blacks and Latinos typically say they trust Trump more to address the problem. Trump’s strength on those measures is one component of the overall racial inversion evident in polling so far about the 2024 race, with Biden largely holding his 2020 support among white voters but suffering substantial erosion to Trump among racial minorities.

A crucial question for the election is whether Trump can maintain those inroads among nonwhite voters while offering such a racially polarizing agenda across a wide range of issues. Trump’s embrace of criminal-justice and policing policies that could disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities is a prime example of that dynamic.

Biden, in a manner reminiscent of Bill Clinton during the 1990s, has tried to find a “third way” on crime between Trump and the most liberal reformers in his own party. Biden backed the sweeping police-reform bill that the Democratic-controlled House passed in 2021 and issued a 2022 executive order prescribing various reforms on federal law-enforcement agencies. But he has also touted the $15 billion he won in the 2021 COVID-recovery act to support local law-enforcement budgets, and he has continued to push for federal aid to help cities hire 100,000 more police officers.

Biden’s Justice Department has released findings of civil-rights investigations into the police departments of Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered, and Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was killed during a botched raid on her apartment, and is conducting investigations of nine other jurisdictions. But the department has not completed legal consent decrees with any local police departments, a stark contrast with the 14 that Obama reached over his two terms. Lopez, who led those efforts for Obama, praises the quality of the Biden investigations into Minneapolis and Louisville, but says the diminished quantity of agreements reflects Biden’s general sympathy for traditional approaches to policing. “I think there is much more ambivalence under the Biden administration about this work than there was under the Obama administration,” she told me.

But, as on many issues, a huge gulf still separates Biden’s careful balancing act from Trump’s sweeping plans to unshackle and unleash police. Even if Trump could not implement all the proposals he has unveiled, his overall agenda would likely encourage police to adopt more punitive tactics. “I want to think that we are all being alarmist about all this,” Lopez told me, “but I fear that it’s actually quite realistic that he is going to go much further than he did last time.”

For good or ill, the Trump effect on policing would likely be felt most acutely in the heavily Black and Latino neighborhoods of places such as Detroit, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas that may decide whether he wins a second term and the chance to reverse the past decade’s fitful advances toward rethinking policing and criminal justice.


Illustration Sources: Angela Weiss / Getty; Brett Carlsen / Getty; David Ryder / Getty; James Devaney / Getty; Jim Vondruska / Getty; Kyle Grillot / Getty*



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