Tough on Crime

Some of the country’s top cops are trying to convince Donald Trump that he’s wrong on criminal justice.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (L) and New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Nov. 18, 2015.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Some of the most decorated police officials and prosecutors in the country want to convince President Donald Trump that his ideas about law enforcement are wrong. The group—which formed in 2015 under the name Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration—has produced a policy memo that is being delivered to the Trump administration on Monday. Though the memo will almost certainly be ignored, it nevertheless represents a meaningful challenge to the president’s reflexive belief that being classically “tough on crime” and virulently opposed to police reform will make the country safer. If anyone can reason with Trump on these issues, it’s these men and women.

Over 13 pages, the group’s memo articulates a pragmatic vision of criminal justice that cuts against many of the instincts Trump has expressed in his comments about crime and policing. In a foreword, a pair of big-city police chiefs—one of whom was in charge of the Dallas police department last year when five officers were killed in an ambush-style sniper attack—argue that “arrest, conviction, and prison” should not be “the default response for every broken law.” This isn’t some radical proposition that undermines the rule of law. It’s a mature diagnosis of the complex link between crime and punishment that is backed up by academic research on police legitimacy—as well as the experiences of 27 U.S. states that have reduced their prison populations while also reducing crime.

In a letter appended to the memo and personally addressed to Donald Trump, group co-chair Ronal Serpas—the former police superintendent of New Orleans—humbly asks the president for a meeting to “discuss how to best keep our country safe.” The rest of the document fleshes out the idea that law enforcement isn’t just about cracking skulls by offering concrete proposals: Instead of calling for a new ferocity in crime-fighting, it emphasize the costs of “unnecessary incarceration” and the folly of jailing people who suffer from mental illness or drug addiction. Instead of echoing Trump’s alarmism about “the anti-police atmosphere in America,” it tries to impress on him that keeping police officers safe and reducing bloodshed in high-crime neighborhoods requires them to win the public’s trust.

The memo ought to have credibility with Trump. This isn’t some lefty position paper composed by Black Lives Matter activists, after all; it’s a supremely moderate statement of principles that enjoys the endorsement of some 175 prominent law-enforcement figures, including the aforementioned former Dallas police chief, David Brown, as well as Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and former NYPD chief Bill Bratton. These are top guys—the best guys, as Trump might say.

The memo notably will arrive at the White House three days after Trump signed three mostly symbolic executive orders on law enforcement, his first concrete action related to criminal-justice policy. While those orders—which called for a task force to address violent crime, a new focus on drug cartels, and new federal laws to punish people who hurt police officers—were generally light on substance, they clearly reaffirmed the “law and order” rhetoric Trump embraced on the campaign trail and in his inaugural address. In signing them, Trump formally declared himself an ally of police and an enemy of police critics—a man who believes, incorrectly, that America’s in the midst of an unprecedented national crime wave and a “war on cops” that has made policing more dangerous than ever.

Serpas, the former top cop in New Orleans, said in an interview Friday that he hopes the credentials of the people who wrote the memo are enough to compel Trump to at least take notice. “[We] have actually fought crime and actually prosecuted criminals,” Serpas told me. “How many people have had a front-row seat to this debate for 30 or 40 years?”

The authors of the Law Enforcement Leaders memo take pains not to come across as softies: They emphatically confirm the president’s conviction that reducing violent crime in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and New Orleans—where murders and shootings have increased sharply over the past several years—must be a top priority. Still, if Trump reads the memo, he is likely to be surprised and confused by it. The president sees himself as someone who intuitively understands the mission of law enforcement, and he is convinced that he is beloved by its practitioners. It will surely be jarring for Trump to find out that some of the most respected figures in the field are willing to say they support things like sentencing reform, community policing, and addiction treatment instead of incarceration for drug addicts.

Trump has good reason to believe that he gets cops and cops get him. During the campaign, he garnered the full-throated support of the Fraternal Order of Police—the largest police union in the country, with more than 300,000 members—and won over a chorus of notoriously punitive sheriffs. He has put in work for these endorsements, talking frequently about how much he worships police officers and how appalling it is that they have come under scrutiny. He has talked about how police are the “most mistreated” people in America, and he has advocated for policies—like “national stop and frisk”—that he thinks they’ll be impressed by.

But the memo heading to Trump’s desk on Monday is proof that the president is mistaken in assuming that everyone in the law-enforcement community thinks in the kind of militaristic, tribal, and cripplingly defensive mode he projects onto them. It’s an error rooted in his cartoonish view of the universe—the flipside of his absolute certainty that black people in America all live in desperate, bullet-ridden war zones—and it’s not one that will be easy to dislodge.

According to Serpas, the memo is meant to give Trump the political cover he would need to accept the kinds of bipartisan “smart on crime” policy proposals that he and his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, might otherwise view as essentially liberal and anti-police. “Decades of experience have convinced us of a sobering reality: today’s crime policies, which too often rely only on jail and prison, are simply ineffective in preserving public safety,” the memo reads, before noting that, among the 600,000 people who leave prison every year, about half end up returning within three years.

In a best-case scenario, the submission of this memo could end up being a proof of concept for how to change the president’s mind. It could turn out to be a sequel to the extraordinary episode from last year in which Trump was convinced by Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis that, contrary to his intuitions, reinstating torture might not really be the best approach to national security. No matter the messenger, though, it’s hard to imagine Trump being swayed by a vision of criminal justice that is built on compassion and empiricism. His attachment to the macho style of law enforcement policy is not rational, after all; it has nothing to do with any particular “idea” he has about how the crime problem in Chicago or Baltimore should be solved.

When I spoke to Serpas last week, he made a valiant effort to sell the “smart on crime” outlook laid out in the memo in terms that Trump would understand. He compared his modern perspective on crime-fighting to advances in real estate development:

To suggest that we don’t keep moving forward [in policing] is to say we would still build a building today with the technology from the 1920s. Whereas we now have all this new technology that says “you can build a building cheaper, you can make it safer, and it will last longer”—wouldn’t anybody accept those new progressive ideas in that industry as well?

He also explained his support for drug-treatment programs using the language of business:

We’re all for [breaking up] drug cartels that are coming into this nation. But they’re coming in because there’s a demand. Now, that doesn’t make police chiefs soft social liberals because they say there’s a demand driving the drug problem—it’s the truth. If we didn’t have as many people in this nation addicted to drugs, then there wouldn’t be as much of a demand. I’ve never been a businessperson, but I’d suggest you probably don’t build a new hotel in a part of town where there’s no demand.

Trump’s receptiveness to this line of thinking will be telling. If he can’t stomach it—if he just can’t square it with his confident view of law enforcement as a blunt-force solution to the country’s problems—it will confirm that his platform on crime is about nothing more than his desire to feel and act tough. Will a self-consciously restrained memo written by a bunch of wonky police executives, though, be enough to overpower the primal power of that apparent desire?