President Biden will sign an executive order Wednesday aimed at bolstering police accountability, White House officials said, a step that could re-energize federal reform efforts as the nation marks the second anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd.
Advocates have been urging the White House to take such action since a sweeping policing overhaul bill failed in Congress last year. The bill was named for Floyd, a Black man whose death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 prompted mass social justice protests across the country.
Civil rights leaders, police officials and family members of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police in Louisville in 2020, are expected to join the president at the White House on Wednesday for a 4 p.m. ceremony at which the order will be signed.
“If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said it’s not time for an executive order yet because we should be focused on federal legislation, the George Floyd bill in particular,” Damon Hewitt, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said on Tuesday. “But once that effort was sabotaged, the administration has stepped up as much as it could via executive action.”
Biden’s bid to act unilaterally comes amid a rise in violent crime and concern among civil rights groups that the White House has lost a sense of urgency around police reform. Yet the president has little direct authority over the nation’s 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies. In addition to setting new guidelines for federal officers, the executive order aims to offer a template for the broader policing community, asking state and local agencies to embrace the document’s goals.
“It’s the nature of American policing. We don’t have a national police force, no national standards and no way of making every department comply with national standards,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which has consulted with the White House on policing issues. “What this does is, when you don’t have Congress acting on a police bill, you have the president of the United States setting the tone: ‘Here’s what I expect of federal agencies and, therefore, I think state and local will follow.’”
The executive order will authorize the Justice Department to use federal grant funding to encourage local police to tighten restrictions on the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants — steps that federal law enforcement agencies have already taken. It also will set new restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, the White House officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement.
The executive order also will say federal agents have a duty to intervene if they see other law enforcement officials using excessive force — language that echoes changes made by the Justice Department last week in its use-of-force policy, which was updated for the first time in 18 years.
“We feel that this executive order should lay the groundwork for moving forward in a manner which will standardize training and procedures and hopefully standardize police across the country,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, who was involved in negotiations with the White House and was briefed on the contents of the order. “And we hope it will be an element in healing the rifts that exist in some places between police officers and the communities they serve.”
The White House aides acknowledged that Biden does not have direct authority over local or state police. But they said the order will encourage all law enforcement agencies to participate in the new misconduct database and to adopt de-escalation policies similar to those federal agencies will put in place.
“This empowers advocates on the ground to press for changes,” one senior White House official said.
Biden announced he would pursue police reform through executive authority last September after the collapse of the federal legislation, which would have banned chokeholds and no-knock warrants, prohibited racial profiling and eliminated qualified immunity for police officers.
In a nation polarized over discussions of race and criminal justice, however, negotiations were fraught. Police groups denounced a leaked draft in January that said, in a preamble, that there was “systemic racism” in the criminal justice system.
Pasco said the final version of the order includes “allusions to racism.”
“But it’s all in the manner in which it was presented,” he said. “Significant changes have been made in the phrasing, in the policy statement.”
The senior White House official said the executive order went through several iterations based on broad input from police groups and civil rights advocates. Asked whether the language in the preamble had changed, this official said the document “does not hide from the truth — that we need reform in policing and in the larger criminal justice system.”
“That includes systemic racism,” the official said. “The president has spoken to that before. We’re not hiding from that, not backtracking off that.”
The White House does not have the power to make some changes long demanded by advocates, such as getting rid of qualified immunity, which protects police officers from being sued individually for misconduct and was included in the federal bill. Dozens of statehouse bills that would eliminate such immunity have also been defeated.
Other changes, like banning chokeholds or adopting stricter policies about when police can use force, similarly require action on the state or local level.
But Marc Morial, a former New Orleans mayor who is president and chief executive of the National Urban League, called the order “a very important step.”
“We recognize that this process is not going to be easy,” Morial said. “This is a long fight. I’m going to accept this first important step by the president because it’s a powerful statement, and it reflects what he can do with his own executive power.”
Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said the order will have the most direct impact on the nation’s 100,000 federal officers, given that Biden’s ability to act unilaterally on policies for local and state police is limited.
But Cosme said the document could serve as a “national role model for all law enforcement around the country. We’ve engaged in hundreds of hours of discussions, and this can inspire people in the state and local departments to say: ‘This is what we need to do.’”
He emphasized that the order will include sections aimed at providing more support for officer wellness, including mental health, and officer recruitment and retention at a time when many departments are facing low morale and staffing shortages.
“No officer wants anyone, not the suspect or the victim, to lose their life,” Cosme said. “We want the maximum safety for everyone in the country.”