Few things are more thankless than moderation in a time of extremism.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order setting a framework for curbing the excessive use of force by police of the kind that resulted in the death of George Floyd.
The measure is essentially an incentive program, which enables police departments to qualify for federal funding according to criteria established by the Justice Department: banning chokeholds, setting up a national registry of police officers who are repeat abusers, and encouragement of more cooperation between police and social workers in the handling of homelessness and addiction.
Critics complained that the order did not go nearly far enough.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lamented that the president’s order “falls sadly and seriously short of what is required to combat the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality.”
Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said: “Unfortunately, this executive order will not deliver the comprehensive meaningful change and accountability in our nation’s police departments that Americans are demanding.”
Instead, lawmakers were hurriedly formulating their own, more sweeping proposals.
On the table are a ban on chokeholds, strict transparency standards and a national database to track offenses, and repeal of “qualified immunity,” that protects officers from prosecution unless they transgress “clearly established” law.
In some places, lawmakers are already going farther than the Trump initiative. In New York, the City Council has proposed to cut $1 billion from the nearly $6 billion NYPD budget. To achieve that, they want to slash overtime and hiring, and put some of that money into social services.
On the state level, Governor Cuomo signed legislation on Tuesday requiring state troopers to wear body cameras, and created a new office to investigate police misconduct. Furthermore, Cuomo backed a repeal of a state law known as 50-A, which prevents the public from seeing disciplinary records for officers, including those who kill civilians.
It is indicative of the public mood that at least some police officials are engaged in trying to limit the changes rather than block them.
“I think everyone has to cut. I think we’re going to be forced to do difficult things,” New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea told the AP. “What concerns me is a moment in time and some rash judgments stepping in and taking the place of some well thought out conversations about how to cut smartly.”
But not everyone has been swept up unthinkingly in the demand for defunding. Mr. Trump himself said in the message accompanying his executive order that “I strongly oppose the radical and dangerous efforts to defund, dismantle and dissolve our police departments… Americans know the truth: Without police, there is chaos. Without law, there is anarchy.”
In normal times, such a statement would be considered a banality. But in these not-normal times, with the howl of the mob in everyone’s ears, it takes a measure of bravery to say it.
Fortunately, the president is not the only one in Washington who is not bending the knee to populist fervor.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, denounced “defund the police” as “probably one of the worst slogans ever.”
After that burst of candor, she was forced to apologize. “I would never mean to malign a movement of activists who I know are fighting for transformative change,” she said in public penance reported by Politico.
She said that what she meant was: “I think it can be used as a distraction and that’s my concern. … the intent behind it is something that I support — the idea that communities need investments.”
Actually, Democrats are concerned that the rhetoric will be harmful — to their election campaigns. As House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) told fellow party members in a conference call: “This movement today, some people tried to hijack it. Don’t let yourselves be drawn into the debate about defunding police forces,” he was quoted by The Hill as saying.
Clyburn and Bass know that Mr. Trump is correct in saying that Americans want law and order, not chaos, and they also know they need well-funded police departments for that. Candidates who say otherwise are likely to find out the hard way that they are not really in sync with public sentiment, no matter what the wild-eyed radicals say.
Finally, it is characteristic of extremism that it demands change without delay, discussion or thought.
As Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayor of Atlanta, put it: “I am often reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: ‘There is a ‘fierce urgency of now’ in our communities. It is clear that we do not have another day, another minute, another hour to waste.’”
Accordingly, Democrat and Republican leaders “are hoping to get something to President Donald Trump’s desk within the next few weeks, worrying that they’ll lose momentum if the negotiations drag beyond the July 4th holiday,” Politico said.
It might be better if the July 4 deadline were allowed to pass. It will be a mark of true leadership if, in this emotionally charged moment, more time is taken to think through the far-reaching changes currently on the national agenda.