Stephon Clark’s death tests Donald Trump’s police support
Police know that President Trump has their backs, and that message is clearer than ever in the wake of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by cops in Sacramento, California.
The Trump White House has carefully avoided calling into question law enforcement’s actions in the March 18 death of Stephon Clark, who was shot eight times by police while holding only a cellphone in his grandparents’ backyard.
Pressed by reporters about the shooting, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was a “local matter” best handled by local authorities and “not something for the federal government to weigh into.”
That position drew a bitter response from the Rev. Al Sharpton, who spoke at Clark’s funeral.
“This is not a local matter,” Mr. Sharpton said. “They’ve been killing young black men all over the country.”
If the shooting of the 22-year-old occurred two years ago, Americans likely would have heard from President Obama, who was critical of several police shootings of minorities as the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets.
Such shootings often were followed by the swift announcement of a civil rights investigation by the Obama Justice Department.
Mr. Trump hasn’t spoken or tweeted about the Clark case. But in a speech about the economy in Ohio on Thursday, the president once again left no doubt where he stands on questions of policing.
“We’ll always protect the people that have protected us,” Mr. Trump said. “We have to. And that goes for law enforcement. We’re going to protect our law enforcement, our military, our vets.”
That attitude from the White House has been a sea change for law enforcement, said Nate Catura, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
“Cops love Trump,” Mr. Catura said. “They think that Trump has their backs, and he has exhibited that. Under Obama, we never saw that. We felt like we were on our own.”
During Mr. Obama’s last year in office, police officers were killed in ambushes in Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by gunmen who said they wanted revenge for the police shootings of black men. Some in law enforcement blamed Mr. Obama for contributing to an anti-cop atmosphere.
Mr. Catura attended a Medal of Valor ceremony at the White House in February in which the president honored 12 law-enforcement officers and first responders. He said officers appreciate Mr. Trump’s support through policy initiatives and symbolism.
“You can see it in a symbolic way when he lit up the White House all in blue during Police Week last year, and he’s doing it again this year,” Mr. Catura said. “We had petitioned the Obama administration several times to light the White House in blue, and he never would. The perception under President Obama was the administration was unfairly targeting law enforcement.”
Cecilia Munoz, who served as Mr. Obama’s domestic policy adviser, agrees that Mr. Trump is taking a vastly different approach to law enforcement and that the nation will be worse off for it.
“There’s no question that the Trump administration has taken their eye off the ball of the community relations side of policing,” she said. “The end result of that ultimately undercuts the safety of whole swaths of the American community. If Americans live in fear of civic authorities, then they are less safe.”
After the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Mr. Obama formed the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Its report called for, among other things, more data on police shootings and the removal of incentives for such police practices as arrests and convictions.
Mr. Obama also sought to reduce the amount of military-style equipment provided by Washington to the nation’s 18,000 police jurisdictions. Mr. Trump has undertaken to reverse that move, giving more hardware again to local police departments.
Mr. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions also have “taken a more active role in getting the perspective of law enforcement,” Mr. Catura said.
“They actively seek out our opinions, and they want us to weigh in on major issues,” he said. “They value law enforcement’s input. It’s so refreshing.”
Still, law enforcement officials acknowledge that tensions with minority communities are rising, and some say the White House’s view of the Sacramento shooting as a “local matter” doesn’t help.
“I don’t believe the rhetorical response that a controversial police shooting is a mere ‘local matter’ in any way ameliorates what many throughout the country, including law enforcement, recognize as a significant national issue,” said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.
“If anything, such statements are likely to be perceived as dismissive, and they risk broadening the divide that already exists between the men and women that work within our justice system and those that feel disenfranchised by it,” he said.
Mr. Catura said there is no question that agitation is growing again between minority communities and police departments.
“Things prior to this incident in Sacramento had kind of calmed down,” he said. “Heaven forbid if there’s another one like this that comes shortly; it’s going to be a powder keg.”
Ms. Munoz, the former Obama adviser, said Mr. Trump is contributing to those tensions.
“He does use the bully pulpit with respect to some issues of crime when it suits his purpose, not when it doesn’t,” she said. “Those double standards get noticed across the country. The end result, I think, is to make it harder for the police to do their job well and to make it harder for communities of color in particular to believe that they will be protected. The results of that could be tragic.”
Mr. Palmer said government officials should be focusing their response on impartial investigations of police shootings.
“A better response to these incidents when they arise, regardless of the political administration in power, would be to urge a credible investigation and respect the investigative process that will determine the facts one way or another,” he said. “If officers are found to have committed wrongdoing, they should be held accountable, and everyone should want that.”
He added, “President Trump’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the most recent shootings may seem to be helpful to law enforcement at first blush, but policing will always be a decidedly national issue.”
Mrs. Sanders did say last week that White House officials “certainly ... want to make sure that all law enforcement is carrying out the letter of the law.”
“We want to find ways to bring the country together certainly not looking for any place of division,” she said.
Some black leaders say the divide is widening nevertheless.
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, Louisiana Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the White House “continues to stun Americans with its ignorance concerning matters of racial justice.”
“Families mourning the loss of loved ones in Sacramento, Baton Rouge, Ferguson, St. Paul, North Charleston, Staten Island, Baltimore, Tulsa and other communities would disagree with the White House’s assessment that this is a local matter,” he said.