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Local police say they’ve already implemented many of Biden’s reforms

De-escalation policies, body cameras, choke-hold bans already in place, but executive order could make them more widespread

Washington, DC - May 17: Patrice A. Sulton, 36, Founder and Executive Director of the DC Justice Lab is pictured in her home. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The executive order to improve policing in the United States unfurled by President Biden on Wednesday has direct effect only on federal officers and agents, who were instructed to wear body cameras, create a national database of police misconduct and conduct thorough internal investigations in use of force cases. But there are about five times as many local police officers and sheriffs deputies nationwide as federal agents, and the president doesn’t have authority over them. And it was local, not federal, police officers in Minneapolis, Louisville and Atlanta whose widely publicized actions in 2020 sparked the nationwide call for police reform.

Still, local police officials say they have already implemented most of the reforms being ordered by Biden federally, though some community activists say the pace of change hasn’t been fast enough. And two of the key contributors to the Biden order, the leaders of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), said the Biden reforms were largely based on changes already enacted at the local level. They said Biden’s 21-point order should create a national policing standard for departments that aren’t already restricting choke holds and no-knock warrants, limiting use of force and training their officers in avoiding biased policing, as the president instructed federal agencies to begin doing.

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Christopher Geldart, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said many of the 21 actions ordered by Biden “are things we have already done or are currently doing.” Police in the District have banned the use of chokehold restraints, which caused the death of Eric Garner in New York in 2014, and no-knock warrants, which led to the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville in 2020.

Police Chief Robert J. Contee III told the D.C. Council in February that all officers are trained in de-escalation, “to ensure force is only used when necessary,” and that the police are teaching officers about their duty to intervene when they see other officers commit wrongdoing. The Justice Department last week updated its use-of-force policy to require officers to intervene, as well.

“It doesn’t really impact my agency,” said Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham, “because we’re pretty much up to date on a lot of the things [the Biden order] is requiring.” Newsham said the department already has body-worn cameras and has banned choke holds and no-knock warrants. But the former D.C. chief said he felt “a lot of agencies will benefit” by having the federal requirements in place, as standards to achieve if they haven’t already.

Terry Cunningham, deputy executive director of the IACP, and Jim Pasco, executive director of the FOP, worked with Biden administration officials such as Susan Rice and Vanita Gupta to devise the executive order.

“The direct impact on nonfederal agencies will be minimized,” Cunningham said Wednesday. “However, what’s important about the executive order is that it will provide law enforcement agencies with guidance on evidence-based leading practices, promote adoption of policies that emphasize the preservation of life and promote officer wellness and safety, and direct federal agencies to provide resources and training to state and local agencies.”

The first prong of Biden’s order promotes accountability for police, in part by creating a new national database of police misconduct. But such a database, the National Decertification Index, has been maintained for years by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training. Federal agencies do not currently submit their data about fired or disciplined officers to the database. Michael N. Becar, the executive director of the database, said Wednesday he had not heard yet if the Biden administration intended to add federal agents’ disciplinary records to the existing local police database or create an entirely new one.

Angelo Consoli, president of the Prince George’s County police union, said that many of the executive order’s points were mandated after Maryland lawmakers passed sweeping police reform legislation last year, which included Anton’s Law — a bill that made police disciplinary records available to the public.

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“You’re not going to find too many officers opposed to any statewide or nationwide database of cops that got in trouble or disciplined or fired, whether it's for excessive force or dishonesty,” Consoli said. “The only thing we’ve ever asked for is due process,” he said, which the executive order promises.

The FBI has attempted to create a national database on use-of-force incidents but has been hampered by lack of participation by local departments. The executive order requires all federal agencies to submit such data on a monthly basis, and instructs the attorney general to help local departments compile and submit their numbers. Cunningham said such data should also include uses of force against the police, not just by the police.

Currently only private organizations such as The Washington Post comprehensively track police killings.

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The Biden order requires new standards that limit the use of force and require de-escalation for all federal agencies. Lee Holland, president of Montgomery County’s police union, FOP Lodge 35, said the county “has been well ahead of most agencies when it comes to strict use-of-force policies and other measures I have seen in the executive order.” Newsham said that many large police agencies shifted to de-escalation tactics after 2016, when the Police Executive Research Forum called on departments to retrain officers on creating time and distance from subjects during critical incidents rather than using a traditional pyramid of increasing force.

Contee said D.C. officers are now being trained in the duty to intervene when they see other officers commit wrongdoing.

But Patrice Sulton, a member of the city’s Police Reform Commission, said reform efforts have stalled and the D.C. Council has not held the police to account on issues such as diverting money into alternative justice programs and shifting responsibilities away from law enforcement.

“There is not enough conversation,” Sulton said Wednesday, “about what police are doing and how we can effectively prevent violence and reduce harm.” She said the District doesn’t need guidance from the White House when it already has a blueprint from the reform commission.

Pasco, the longtime executive director of the FOP, said he anticipated resistance from rural and smaller police departments, and that “the sales job’s on us” to convince them to adopt measures such as tracking use-of-force data and seeking formal accreditation, two tenets of the Biden order.

“We would hope that they would agree,” Pasco said, “that the executive order lays out a really thoughtful framework, which will hopefully serve to improve the relationships between officers and the communities they serve. And at the same time, create opportunities for enhancing the efficiency of departments and individual offices through education and grants.”

Cunningham said he hoped that perhaps 10 of the 21 items in the Biden order would become a “blueprint for legislation.” He said there has been “a swath of bad legislation across the country” on police issues, and that perhaps federal legislation would create national standards on accreditation, advanced biometric technologies and plans for front-end diversion and alternatives to incarceration.

Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said he endorsed Biden’s order “along with my fellow chiefs from the Major Cities Chiefs Association. The executive order is an excellent first step towards accountable policing and strengthening trust and public safety in our community across the nation.”

Dan Morse and Katie Mettler contributed to this report.