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The problem of perceived police partisanship

When former president Donald Trump described immigrants accused of committing crimes as “animals” who are “not human” in a Michigan speech this week, the phalanx of police standing behind him onstage didn’t react. There was no nodding in agreement or shaking heads of disapproval. If they hadn’t been instructed not to indicate their opinions of Trump’s comments, they certainly behaved as though they had been. Stoic. Dispassionate.

Yet they were still there, standing behind Trump’s words. Not simply literally, either. The Grand Rapids campaign stop included the announcement that the former president’s bid to regain his old job was receiving the endorsement of the Police Officers Association of Michigan.

An endorsement of a political candidate by a police organization is hardly an exceptional moment by itself. Police unions often offer endorsements to candidates; those endorsements have historically been eagerly sought, given the respect afforded law enforcement officials among the general public. But Trump’s effort to ingratiate himself to law enforcement is different, occurring at a different moment and engendering a different response.

Most importantly, though, Trump is not a typical candidate. He has promised to deploy law enforcement against his political opponents and repeatedly demanded that protesters with whom he disagrees be dealt with more harshly by police. That makes perceived agreement with his approach much more fraught for the police.

Trump’s ascent in the 2016 Republican primary was a function of his focus on immigration. It also carefully leveraged the Republican backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, which had gained public prominence the previous year. That movement, focused on the killings of Black Americans by police, triggered a conversation about systemic racism in law enforcement, among other governmental systems. It also prompted a rally-around-the-blue effect, with “Blue Lives Matter” — that is, police lives — emerging as a rhetorical rebuttal to “Black Lives Matter.” The thin-blue-line flag became a totem on the political right.

Asked about one such shooting in July 2015, soon after announcing his candidacy, Trump insisted that he was “a huge fan of the police.”

“I think the police have to be given back power,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He had used the same language in 1989 when he bought a full-page ad demanding that New York reinstate the death penalty after a group of teenagers were arrested and accused of assaulting a woman in Central Park. The teens were later exonerated, though Trump refused to acknowledge that during his 2016 campaign.

As a candidate and president, Trump would regularly engage and praise police. A group of officers in Texas were reprimanded during the 2016 campaign after they sported “Make America great again” hats while on duty. During his first summer in office, Trump spoke in front of several police officers at an event on Long Island.

“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon,” he said, “you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice.” The officers behind him laughed.

Trump was on Long Island again last week, attending the wake of an officer killed in the line of duty. He was warmly received, which does not appear to have been the case for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) during her subsequent visit.

Trump described his visit during a radio interview on Thursday.

“They had 11,000 police there, but over the course of that weekend, I think 50- or 60,000 police showed up, not just from New York, from all over the country,” Trump said. “The wife is an incredible woman. I spoke to her for a long time. We stood over the casket together. And they really appreciated what I did for the police. They did not appreciate other people, I can tell you that.”

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), a former member of the New York Police Department — like the officer who was killed — shared an image from the tribute.

“Don’t ever cross us,” he wrote.

Don’t ever cross us.

— Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (@RepDesposito) March 31, 2024

This sort of sentiment is where the overlap of politics and police gets tricky.

Soon after the 2020 election, an analysis of campaign contributions showed a sharp uptick in contributions from police employees to Republican candidates and committees. This is in part because of the introduction of a tool, WinRed, that better tracks small-dollar contributions.

It is probably also in part because of the increased partisan polarization around police that followed the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the Blue Lives Matter response. In 2014, there was a 17-point gap between Democrats and Republicans in Gallup polling when respondents were asked how much confidence they had in police. By 2020 — when Trump was running for reelection and the Black Lives Matter movement was resurgent — the gap had expanded to 54 points.

Since 2020, that gap has narrowed again, in part because Republican confidence in the police has dropped by 20 points.

The natural question that arises is how partisan police officers are. Research released in June offers an analysis of that question, matching personnel data of a quarter-million officers from 98 law enforcement agencies with voter registration data from the firm L2.

Overall, the researchers — faculty at such schools as Duke University, Princeton University and the University of Rochester — found a fairly even distribution of party identities (including modeled identities in places that don’t have partisan registration). But there’s a catch: These were officers who served in most of the largest agencies in the country, generally meaning large cities.

“[R]elative to civilians in their jurisdictions,” the researchers write, “police officers are not only more likely to affiliate with the Republican Party, they also have higher household income, vote more often, and are more likely to be White.”

A chart from the report shows that divide. The black dots indicate the density of Republicans in the police force (with ranges of uncertainty), and the gray stars indicate the density of Republicans among residents in their jurisdictions.

What’s more, the officers often lived in places that were dissimilar from the communities where they served.

“Officers’ home tracts tend to have higher shares of Republicans (+9 [percentage points]) and White residents (+13 p.p.),” the report indicates. “ … In the same vein, officers tend to live in areas with lower shares of Black (−7 p.p.) and Hispanic (−5 p.p.) residents than the jurisdiction-wide average.”

The officers standing behind Trump as he spoke in Michigan were mostly White men. So was James Tignanelli, the president of the association that gave its endorsement — an endorsement that wasn’t solely about Trump’s support for law enforcement.

“There’s no way we can have a president in the United States that allows 3 million people a year — or more, I’m sure — to come into our country illegally,” Tignanelli said when announcing the endorsement. “We can’t allow that to continue.”

This is inaccurate. A large number of immigrants have been stopped at the border in recent years, but many of them are subsequently detained or deported. Many others are allowed to remain in the country while their claims of asylum are adjudicated.

Again, this rhetoric isn’t coming from a state legislator who’s offering his endorsement, it’s coming from the head of a police organization. It is offered in support of a candidate who touts his backing from law enforcement even as he is actively trying to code support for the police as partisan. (Not to mention in support of a candidate who has been indicted four times, including once over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which injured numerous officers.)

The difference in partisan identity between police officers and those they serve should not matter; the officers’ service, overwhelmingly, is independent of politics (though, the research cited above suggests, partisanship does correlate with the approach officers take to their work). If police are seen as allied with Trump and the political right, though — a perception Trump encourages and which police officers and their allies have at times embraced as a response to criticism — the damage to community trust could be severe. Gallup’s polling already indicates that some damage has been incurred.

Then there’s the question of how law enforcement officials respond should Trump regain the presidency. We have already seen examples of members of law enforcement leveraging their authority in support of extreme political movements or working with fringe actors. Police were beaten during the riot at the Capitol in support of Trump — but some police officers were part of the mob.

It’s a moment when police departments are under particular scrutiny. It is in Trump’s interest to heighten a sense of embattlement among police officers, as he does with other groups.

It is also a moment when even the perception of partisan alignment is fraught.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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