Police Unions Reject Charges of Bias, Find a Hero in Donald Trump

Donald Trump and some law enforcement unions have found common ground in misleading claims about policing and immigration.

A mounted Larimer sheriff deputy watches as a capacity crowd of supporters of Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump line up outside the Budweiser Events center in Loveland, Colorado on October 3, 2016. / AFP / Jason Connolly        (Photo credit should read JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images)
A mounted officer watches as a capacity crowd of supporters of Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump line up outside the Budweiser Events center in Loveland, Colorado on October 3, 2016. Photo: Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images

During the first presidential debate, Donald Trump answered a question about how to heal the country’s racial divide by boasting of his law enforcement endorsements.

“We have endorsements from, I think, almost every police group,” he said, before rephrasing to “a large percentage of them.” Later in the debate, in response to a question about cybersecurity, he boasted again: “I was just endorsed by ICE. They’ve never endorsed anybody before on immigration. I was just endorsed by ICE.”

As is often the case, the candidate’s statements were hyperbolic in the first claim and plain incorrect in the second. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency operating under the Department of Homeland Security, did not, of course, endorse anyone, even though the National ICE Council, the union representing 7,600 of ICE’s 20,000 employees, did endorse Trump. And while the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police association in the country, as well as some local police unions, also endorsed Trump, that’s hardly every police group in the country.

But Trump did have a point: At a time when law enforcement is perhaps the only issue that divides Americans more than the presidential election itself, a notable number of police and immigration officers are throwing their weight behind his candidacy — at least through their unions and associations.

In addition to the Fraternal Order of Police — which represents some 330,000 members, both active and retired, out of nearly 900,000 police officers nationwide — Trump won the endorsement of the New England Police Benevolent Association. Earlier this week, he also won the support of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association — a notable endorsement in a city under a federal decree to rein in its police department’s excessive use of force and struggling to restore relationships with black residents after a series of police killings.

On the immigration enforcement front, Trump, who launched his presidential race calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals,” earned the support of both the ICE union and the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 16,500 of 21,000 Border Patrol agents. He also earned the endorsement of some high-profile, if controversial, sheriffs — including Joe Arpaio in Arizona, David Clarke in Milwaukee, and several others who have “murky legal histories” and a reputation for racist and anti-immigrant views.

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21:<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Sheriff Joe Arpaio exits the stage after delivering a speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday, July 21, 2016. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Sheriff Joe Arpaio exits the stage after delivering a speech at the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016.

Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images

In a way, these endorsements should hardly surprise. The law enforcement profession has traditionally attracted a more conservative crowd, and Trump has billed himself the “law and order” candidate at a time when the broader public is clamoring for police accountability and oversight. But the fact that these endorsements come at a time when trust in police is at a historic low, and that Trump’s very response to questions on racial tensions was to position himself as the choice of police, reflects just how deeply the country’s fractures run on these issues, and how hard they will be to repair, regardless of the election’s outcome.

“There are some safe generalizations we can make about rank-and-file cops and Border Patrol agents and that’s that they are generally conservative politically, and generally coming from male-dominated cultures — and I think sexism does play a role in this election,” said Norm Stamper, a former chief of the Seattle Police Department and vocal advocate for police reform. “They’re also inclined towards tough talk and promise of action, whether it’s building a wall and kicking people out of the country or embracing a more aggressive stop-and-frisk policy in inner cities.”

Trump’s tough talk seemed to convince the Fraternal Order of Police, who in an endorsement statement marked by three exclamation points called Trump “a leader unafraid to make tough choices.” The group noted that the candidate responded to a questionnaire it had put out — while Clinton didn’t. In his responses, Trump indicated support, among other things, for a controversial federal bill known as the “Blue Lives Matter Act” that aims to expand the definition of hate crime to include law enforcement officers.

MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 04:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to officers while visiting the Manchester Police Department during a shift change on February 4, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates are stumping for votes throughout New Hampshire leading up to the primary on February 9.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to officers while visiting the Manchester Police Department during a shift change on Feb. 4, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But critics, including some within the law enforcement community, say that Trump’s aggressive attitude on law enforcement is informed by flawed understanding of public safety challenges and risks doing more damage than good. Earlier this year, a coalition of police chiefs and prosecutors representing some 30,000 law enforcement professionals published an open letter, addressed to both candidates but responding directly to Trump’s calls for “zero tolerance” law and order. “Though this may sound counterintuitive, we know from our experience as law enforcement officials that over-relying on incarceration does not deter crime,” they wrote. “Too many resources go toward arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning low-level offenders.”

Stamper, the former Seattle police chief, put it more bluntly. “He does not know what he’s talking about, the man does not know police work,” he told The Intercept. “When he, without thinking, without researching, without developing facts, makes these assertions — for example about stop and frisk — not only is he fueling racism, he taps into a really ineffective and unconstitutional police tactic.”

“He makes it up on the fly, and not only is it offensive to professional police officers, it’s damaging to the community-police relationship,” he added, noting that while rank-and-file officers may embrace Trump, few police chiefs would agree, “because they realize how much harm his presidency would cause to public safety and sound community relations.”

Policing — whether the police reform and community-relations building advocated by liberals, or the return to tougher law and order clamored for by conservatives — has been a central issue in this election, propelled to the forefront of the national conversation by the grassroots movement for black lives that grew in response to a seemingly endless number of police killings. But for all the talk about police on the campaign trail, substantial discussion on how to address the crisis this country is facing has been lacking, said Stamper, who wishes candidates debated practical policies to end the war on drugs, set national operating standards to bring some conformity to the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country, and developed “true” citizen-driven community policing.

Instead, discussion of policing has been either “too timid and too fearful,” or plain inflammatory, he said, as Trump has seized on the fears and frustrations of officers who have responded with vitriol to increased scrutiny of their profession. Stamper noted, for instance, that in the newsletters he receives daily from various police groups, activists for police accountability are invariably referred to as “BLM thugs.”

“That’s so demoralizing for those of us who are interested in progressive policing and helping cops understand what’s in it for them in treating everyone with dignity and respect,” he said.

A Slap in the Face for Black Cops

In fact, if the FOP’s endorsement of Trump has angered anyone, it’s not so much activists as black, Latino, and Muslim officers across the country, for whom Trump’s candidacy embodies not only a flawed approach to policing, but also a much broader problem with racism.

In Cleveland, for instance, a largely black and democratic city, the police union’s endorsement of Trump is bound to “further polarize us and the community and cause more problems,” said Lynn Hampton, president of the Black Shield union, which represents African-American officers. “You’re giving police more authority to operate on their biases,” he said, before warning, ahead of the announcement, “When the endorsement vote does come down, just know it’s not the sentiments of a lot of police officers on the force.”

That sentiment was echoed by black law enforcement officers across the country.

“The FOP endorsement is a slap in the face to both black cops and the black community,” said Damon Jones, the New York representative of Blacks in Law Enforcement in America, one of a number of black law enforcement associations that have condemned the Trump endorsement. “A lot of black officers disagree.”

WATERBURY, CT - APRIL 23:  A policeman watches as as Republican Presidential frontrunner Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on April 23, 2016 in Waterbury, Connecticut. Supporters packed the Crosby High School gym to hear Trump's address ahead of Tuesday's Connecticut primary election.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A police officer watches as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on April 23, 2016, in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Jones, a corrections officer, said that Trump’s nostalgia for Reagan-era “tough on crime” rhetoric is “dangerous,” and the racist atmosphere his candidacy has helped fuel is already doing damage. At the Westchester county jail where Jones works, for example, a white officer was recently suspended after posting a series of racist messages on social media, mocking the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Now everybody’s able to see what black law enforcement officers have been saying since we’ve been in this institution, that it’s based on racism,” Jones told The Intercept. Trump built on resentment among officers that was already on the rise in recent years, he acknowledged, but he’s polarized the issue even further.

“What Donald Trump has raised up with is candidacy is something that’s going to last and we are going to have to deal with long beyond this election,” he said. “People are now emboldened to attack other people because of their race, or show a racial bias that was silent and now they’re bold enough to share.”

Jones added that while police unions don’t speak for the departments themselves, they represent a large number of their members. He also noted that many of the officers endorsing Trump are closely aligned with the NRA — which also endorsed him, and whose pro-gun advocacy is damaging to both public safety and black communities.

But while slamming his colleagues’ endorsement of Trump, Jones was no less critical of the alternative. “The Clintons established the base for the mass incarceration we see in America today, a lot of black people haven’t forgotten that,” he said. “But against Trump she’s an angel now, because that’s what we’ve got to choose from at this point.”

“Will she make the necessary changes after her husband laid the foundations to disrupt the black family and the black community? I really don’t know,” he added. “But right now, the only thing is no Trump.”

Claims vs. Facts

Trump’s endorsement by the two leading immigration enforcement unions in the country was also unsurprising, even though neither group had endorsed a presidential candidate before. But those endorsements suggest that immigration reform, like police reform, will continue to be a hard sell for many of the nation’s law enforcement officers.

Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, said his group’s endorsement was “really no brainer.”

“He was the only candidate that was talking about taking a stronger stance on border security,” he told The Intercept, criticizing what he saw as liberal asylum policies, including for the thousands of children and families that crossed the border in recent years. “We just see more and more areas of immigration law not being enforced and basically being carved out to the point that our agents feel like they’re glorified greeters, as the vast majority of people they encounter are released into the country.”

ROMA, TX - APRIL 14:  A Border Patrol agent scans for immigrants illegally crossing the Rio Grand into the United States on April 14, 2016 in Roma, Texas. Border security and immigration, both legal and otherwise, continue to be contentious national issues in the 2016 Presidential campaign.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A Border Patrol agent looks out at the Rio Grand on April 14, 2016, in Roma, Texas.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

But that claim — like many of Trump’s own — is simply not true. Illegal immigration continues to decline, and Border Patrol agents apprehended 337,117 people in fiscal year 2015, according to the agency’s own numbers — down 30 percent from the previous year. At the same time, officers turned back 225,342 inadmissible individuals from ports of entry and arrested another 8,246 wanted for serious crimes. In total, the Department of Homeland Security reported 406,595 apprehensions for immigration violations that year, with 462,463 removals and returns. 

Criminal prosecutions for illegal entry are up 182 percent from 10 years ago. As for asylum seekers, the U.S. is bound by international law to review their cases.

“The U.S. has obligations under international treaties to ensure people with valid claims are able to seek refuge,” Grace Meng, a Human Rights Watch senior researcher focusing on immigration issues, told The Intercept. “It’s really unfortunate that Border Patrol thinks its job is to deport people. Its job is to enforce U.S. immigration laws.”

Trump has made some pretty boisterous claims on how to secure the border — and how to pay for that — but he has also been inconsistent on his stance on immigration. But the Border Patrol union dismissed those concerns. “Mr. Trump is correct when he says immigration wouldn’t be at the forefront of this presidential campaign if months ago he hadn’t made some bold and necessary statements,” the union said in a brash statement that at times felt like it was written by the candidate himself. “When the withering media storm ensued, he did not back down one iota.”

Moran said that Trump’s repeated offenses directed at the Latino community “haven’t been an issue” for the union, even though some 52 percent of Border Patrol agents are Latino, as are many in the communities they patrol. In fact, the council has faced criticism even from within the agency’s decidedly conservative ranks. In El Paso, for instance, the union’s local chapter narrowly failed to disavow the national endorsement. “One of the reasons that El Paso is the safest city in the United States is because of the trust developed between law enforcement and the El Paso community,” a group of local agents wrote in a statement. “This trust is undermined by the endorsement of a candidate for president who demeans and degrades immigrants.”

The endorsement was also harshly criticized by immigration advocates and some border residents. “Border Patrol’s excess and tactics have transformed our communities into theaters of war,” Astrid Dominguez, an advocacy coordinator with the ACLU of Texas, wrote in a scathing response to the council’s statement, refuting several of their claims.

LA JOYA, TX - APRIL 10:  U.S. Border Patrol agent Sal De Leon speaks with fellow agents near a section of U.S.-Mexico border fence on April 10, 2013 in La Joya, Texas. According to the Border Patrol, undocumented immigrant crossings have increased more than 50 percent in Texas' Rio Grande Valley sector in the last year. Border Patrol agents say they have also seen an additional surge in immigrant traffic since immigration reform negotiations began this year in Washington D.C. Proposed refoms could provide a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers living in the United States.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A U.S. Border Patrol agent speaks with fellow agents near a section of the U.S.-Mexico border fence on April 10, 2013, in La Joya, Texas.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Dominguez referenced the Border Patrol’s history of misconduct, excessive force, and corruption — which earned it a reputation as the “most out-of-control law enforcement agency” in the country — and cited a former head of the agency’s internal affairs operations who found that thousands of its own agents were “potentially unfit” to serve. Dominguez also criticized the immigration record of President Obama — whom the Border Patrol union essentially accused of “betraying this country” — by recalling the record number of deportations under his watch and the massive jump in Border Patrol funding that continued under his administration.

Moran dismissed that criticism and cited statistics claiming that Border Patrol agents resort to deadly force “seven percent less” than other agencies. “It is an extremely rare event for a police officer in this country to shoot and kill someone,” he said. “It’s going to be seven times more rare that it’s going to be a Border Patrol agent.”

At least 46 people have died in encounters with Border Patrol agents since 2010, and many more have been brutalized. And while that’s undoubtedly far fewer than the 824 people killed by police in 2016 alone, it’s hardly an achievement to boast about. If anything, it’s further testimony to the depth of the disconnect that divides the country on law enforcement issues — a divide this election is not promising to close.

Top photo: A mounted officer watches as a crowd of supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump line up outside the Budweiser Events center in Loveland, Colorado, on Oct. 3, 2016.

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