Undoing Unjustice: Federal options to stop the harms of law and order policy.

By Sebastian Hickey, Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow

Since beginning his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has liberally used the language of “law and order” to stoke fear and cause harm. He has lied about levels of violent crime in American cities, encouraged police brutality, and falsely linked immigration to crime. In response to nationwide protests against the murders of Black people by police, the president has become even more blunt in his rhetoric—describing cities as “war zones” and warning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It is perhaps unsurprising that in the face of the most public challenge of the law and order politics he represents, Trump would offer a response so clearly based in the desire to subdue and intimidate communities of color. Law and order dogma has always disproportionately targeted Black people and people of color with increased criminalization through law enforcement, incarceration, and restrictions on people who have been incarcerated. As advocates seek to hold the president and his administration accountable for this dangerous approach, Congress must also act. Policymakers can support the safety of people of color by shifting resources from policing to programs that help all communities thrive.  

The Trump administration has worked to turn the president’s rhetoric into reality.  During his tenure, U.S. Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions gutted the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) use of consent decrees, court-ordered agreements between the DOJ and local police departments to rectify police civil rights violations. Similarly, AG William Barr has continued to carry forward the tough-on-crime baton, discarding Obama-era school discipline guidelines that reduced the unequal discipline and punishment students of color face

At the same time, several federal programs are products of this damaging logic of law and order, which is where Congress comes in. If we recognize how this harsh doctrine has harmed Black people and communities of color, it becomes clear that we need to rethink what it means to keep communities safe. Lawmakers must particularly address the threat of the following efforts: 

  • The Department of Defense’s (DoD) 1033 program;
  • Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS); and
  • the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants (Byrne JAG).

Congress must end the DoD 1033 program immediately. Under this program, military equipment like MRAP vehicles, grenade launchers, and riot gear can be transferred to local police departments. Reversing the Obama administration’s restriction on this arrangement, the current administration has flooded police with military-grade resources and equipment with no strings attached.  Scenes of armored police tear gassing protesters have underscored that weapons of war do not make communities safer. In addition to harming and intimidating protesters, the military equipment emboldens dangerous police behavior like SWAT raids for search warrants.

Congress must also defund COPS, a product of the 1994 Crime Bill. This program ostensibly seeks to reduce violent crime by hiring more police officers. Police officers rarely make arrests for serious crimes. They do, however, make millions of arrests every year related to traffic violations, marijuana possession, and unlawful assembly. These tactics do little to prevent violent crime while simultaneously forcing thousands of individuals to come in contact with the criminal justice system. COPS also places more police officers in schools, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects Black students and students of color.

Finally, Congress should also reexamine Byrne JAG. The program provides upwards of $400 million dollars each year to cities and states across the country, making it the single largest source of federal criminal justice funds for states and localities. Byrne JAG funds can be used for many purposes including prevention, reentry programs, mental health supports, and drug treatment. However, in 2016, almost 60 percent of funds were used for law enforcement and corrections. Police departments use Byrne JAG funds to purchase weapons, tactical gear, and body armor. Instead of pursuing programs and investments that communities need, Byrne JAG has been used to make police departments more dangerous and incentivize low-level arrests. It is time for lawmakers to redirect Byrne JAG funds to invest in non-police first responder programs, alternatives to policing, and effective reentry programs.

We need investment that makes communities healthier and more economically secure, instead of coercive forces that push people into the criminal justice system. Blatant attacks on communities of color will continue as long as law enforcement is militarized and financially rewarded for criminalization and incarceration. Congress must act to undo the harmful injustices continuously perpetrated by federal criminal justice programs.