Donald Trump promised to restore law and order while on the campaign trail that took him to the office of the US presidency on January 20, 2017.
“We need vigilance,” Trump said in 2015. “We need security,” he added.
“Some horrible mistakes are made. At the same time, we have to give power back to the police, because crime is rampant.”
One year into Trump’s presidency, the United States is substantially safer for police officers, but civilians killed by law enforcement increased and new tactics raised concerns over racial biases and policing of political views.
The rhetorical difference
The total number of law enforcement officers killed on the job in 2017 totalled 124, down from 148 in 2016, according to data from the Officer Down Memorial Page, a group that tracks these statistics.
The rhetorical “difference has been substantial”, Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director and president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, told Al Jazeera.
“I think, for the first time in certainly eight or nine years, [police] feel like perhaps they have someone who does have their back, or is at least not condemning them, in the White House.”
Trump seemed to endorse police brutality in July, when he told law enforcement officials “when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon – you just see them thrown in, rough – I said, ‘Please, don’t be too nice.'”
The comment was met with applause and laughter. Trump later said he was joking.
One of Trump’s first executive orders, signed in early February, directed the attorney general to develop a strategy for prosecuting attacks on law enforcement personnel and to make certain existing laws adequately protect police officers.
feel like perhaps they have someone who does have their back. Or, is at least not condemning them in the White House.”]
The president also removed bans on police departments using military vehicles, which Hosko said can “be lifesaving”. He also rescinded limits, put in place by the Obama administration, on other types of military surplus equipment that can be transferred to police.
The number of police killed by firearms decreased from 63 in 2016 to 44 in 2017, one of the lowest numbers in almost 50 years.
Hosko said that it’s not currently possible to determine if the drop in police deaths can entirely be attributed to Trump and his policies.
But these numbers “went up in 2015 and 2016, and came down in 2017 … to pre-Ferguson numbers,” he said, referring to the city that became a focal point for Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
At the same time, the number of people killed by police increased slightly to 1,188 in 2017, up from 1,169 in 2016, according to figures from Killed By Police, a website that tracks killings by law enforcement.
Police killings had been decreasing before Trump was elected.
‘Black Identity Extremists’
While the number of police officers killed has gone down, politicians, rights groups and organisers – especially in the black community – have expressed concern over the FBI’s targeting of what the FBI calls “Black Identity Extremists” (BIE).
Rakem Balogun, an activist and cofounder of the Guerilla Mainframe (GMF) and the militant Huey P Newton Gun Club (HPNGC), armed African American organisations, was arrested in Dallas on December 12.
Agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms “kicked down his door in a seek-and-destroy mission in search for illegal weapons,” a statement from GMF reads.
The statement said Balogun is a “political prisoner” who is being held under the FBI’s recently uncovered “Black Identity Extremist” designation.
An FBI “intelligence assessment”, leaked in October, says BIEs have “historically justified and perpetrated violence against law enforcement, which they perceived as representative of the institutionalized oppression of African Americans”.
A July 2016 shooting in Dallas that left five police officers dead, as well as others in Louisiana, Indiana and Missouri, prompted the FBI to draft the report.
BIEs “had not targeted law enforcement with premeditated violence for the nearly two decades leading up to the lethal incidents observed beginning in 2014”, the report says.
Balogun, who has been convicted on a misdemeanour domestic assault charge in 2007, was arrested for possession of firearms.
According to a source in Dallas familiar with Balogun, he continued abusing women after 2007.
Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice and former FBI special agent who focused on “domestic terrorism”, told Al Jazeera that Balogun’s actions were illegal and “obviously, domestic violence is a serious concern.”
But “what’s interesting is the [prosecution’s] argument for why he needs to be held in detention,” German said.
German reviewed a transcript of Balogun’s December 15 detention hearing, obtained by Al Jazeera, that details years of surveillance.
FBI Special Agent Aaron Keighley, acting as a witness for the prosecution, spoke about Balogun’s actions going back to 2015, when he participated in a demonstration in Austin, Texas, as part of the HPNGC, according to the transcript.
Keighley said the group’s chanting of slogans, such as “oink oink bang bang” and “the only good pig is a pig that’s dead,” drew his attention for being threats to law enforcement.
“Pig” is a derogatory term for police popularised by the left-wing Black Panther Party in the 1960s.
“The focus on his rhetoric, and even the focus on suggesting the protest was anti-police, is problematic and highlights why the BIE framing that the FBI has developed is problematic,” German continued.
The conclusive development in Balogun’s case came when he travelled to Michigan by plane, putting a firearm in the hold.
Balogun was allowed to leave the airport and return to his home on November 19, under FBI surveillance, the transcript shows.
“Clearly, by the time he went to the airport with the gun, they seemed to have been on top of the fact that he was in possession of [firearms], so why not just arrest him there?” German asked.
The former FBI special agent, who worked undercover with white supremacist movements, which were found to have committed the most “extremist” killings in 2017 by the Anti-Defamation League, said the FBI is trying to “manufacture” a black separatist threat.
The policing of Balogun’s anti-police rhetoric, rather than an investigation into continued domestic abuse, “shows that concerns the black community had about the BIE designation are no longer hypothetical,” German said.
Furthermore, documents from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security show that other groups, like Black Lives Matters, have been monitored by the US government and seen as a threat.
When asked about the FBI report, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee that he had not read it, but that “there are groups that do not have an extraordinary commitment to their racial identity and some have transformed themselves even into violence activists.”
When pressed to name a group that would be categorised as “Black Identity Extremists”, Sessions said he would have to review the report and provide a later comment.
A war on police?
The use of one member’s political rhetoric against them is not the only troubling development, German said.
The transcript shows the prosecution introduced further evidence to prove that Balogun intended to harm police officers in order to have him held without bail, which was granted by the judge.
“The implication is that he’s a threat to police officers … It’s [an] indication of the FBI adopting this ‘War on Cops’ narrative,” German said.
A majority of the evidence was social media posts that referenced the 2016 Dallas shooting, which was also mentioned in the BIE assessment.
The Dallas attack was committed by Micah Johnson, a black man and former member of the US military who ambushed officers at a protest against the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two African American men who lost their lives at the hands of police in the days before the protest.
In the ensuing firefight and negotiations, Johnson allegedly said he was upset by police officers killing members of the African American community without being convicted, and that he wanted to kill “white” officers. Johnson was not tied to any group and appeared to have acted alone.
The shooting gave pro-police groups like Blue Lives Matter, a countermovement to Black Lives Matter, and others a rallying cry: The “War on Police”.
This “war” had an effect on organising. John Fullinwider, a veteran Dallas organiser who works with the nationwide group Mothers Against Police Brutality (MAPB), said the tone “immediately” shifted after the July shooting.
Suddenly, the city was covered in “Back the Blue” posters, with businesses adopting pro-police slogans.
Fullinwider was concerned about this change, which seemed to stifle organising. Community groups like MAPB had been working to reign in police violence in Dallas and the rest of the US for years.
The number of officer-involved shootings peaked in 2012, with 23 total cases, with the next two years seeing 22 and 20 shootings.
At the time, the Dallas Police Chief was David Brown, an African American. Brown began his tenure as chief in 2010 and retired in 2016.
“There were 43 fatal shootings” during that time, Fullinwider said, “and not a single a conviction”.
With the “near-total police impunity” officers enjoyed – no officer has been convicted of murder in Dallas since 1978 – tensions had been building between police officers and communities of colour for years.
The trend appears to be nationwide. Research from Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, shows that between 2005 and April 2017, 80 officers were arrested on charges of murder or manslaughter, and 35 percent – less than 30 – had been convicted.
There were roughly 1,000 fatal shootings each year in that same period.
Under Trump, who has initiated a “crackdown” on dissidents, increased impunity for police and expanded surveillance and arrests of activists is a step in the wrong direction, Fullinwider said.
Even when leaders are working for reform, it does not always come, especially when talking about police.
Brown, the former chief in Dallas, was widely praised after the July 2016 shooting. He tried to initiate reforms that would lower killings by police.
Fullinwider said Brown “deserved his praise”.
But in spite of his efforts, Dallas “did not get a reformed police department”, Fullinwider concluded.
This article is part of a multipart series that examines the State of America Under Trump. Also read: