WASHINGTON – Jim Pasco, the executive director for the Fraternal Order of Police, was watching football on a Sunday afternoon when he got a call from Susan Rice, the top domestic policy adviser at the White House.
Negotiations over an executive order to address racism and policing were in danger of breaking down after a draft was leaked that law enforcement groups believed was too harsh toward officers. Now Rice was looking to get things back on track.
“She said they wanted to start over,” Pasco said as he looked back on that day earlier this year. “And they wanted to deal with us in total confidence.”
He agreed. The result was the executive order that President Joe Biden signed last week during a ceremony that, improbably, brought together law enforcement leaders, civil rights activists and families of people who had been killed by police.
“This is a moment where we have come together for something that is not perfect, but it's very good," Rice said. "And it moves the needle substantially.”
No one who believes that American policing needs to be overhauled — including the president himself — thinks the final order goes far enough. It does not directly affect local departments, which have the most interactions with citizens, nor does it necessarily represent permanent change. The next administration could swiftly undo it.
However, many civil rights advocates consider it an important step forward, and maybe even a building block toward more expansive legislation that has so far been elusive.
“We have to keep the dialogue going,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. "And I think this helps create the sense that we can talk, and if we do talk, we’ll find some common ground.”
A NEW STRATEGY
Biden's original hope was for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation named for George Floyd, the Black man who was murdered by Minneapolis police during an arrest in 2020.
However, the first anniversary of Floyd's death passed last year without a deal, and negotiations eventually broke down. White House officials began focusing on a potential executive order.
Previous presidents, too, have attempted to make improvements to America's law enforcement system, but Biden faced particular pressure to find the right balance.
During his campaign, Biden met with Floyd’s family and pledged to make racial justice a core part of his administration.
He also had longstanding relationships with police and their unions. And he didn't want to be at odds with law enforcement when crime was a growing concern for the country, not to mention an issue ahead of this year's midterm elections.
After preliminary meetings, a draft of the order took shape, and it was circulated among various federal agencies. Then a leaked copy was posted online by the Federalist, a conservative website, in January.
“Everyone went ballistic,” Pasco said. Not only did law enforcement groups dislike various parts of the draft, they felt like the administration hadn't adequately listened to their perspective.
Rice worked the phones to calm nerves, opening a new chapter in the negotiations.
In addition to Rice’s team, Justice Department officials and the White House counsel’s office under Dana Remus worked through the details. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., were involved as well.
Senior administration officials described a sort of shuttle diplomacy, and they met separately with civil rights advocates and law enforcement groups while trying to keep everyone on the same page. Long days were fueled by Hershey's Kisses, M&Ms and whatever else that could be scrounged from White House desks.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent policy organization, said that in Washington, “people give you lip service." But in this case, “we had hours of discussions, very substantive discussions, about some of the issues in there.”
REACHING A DEAL
One sensitive part of the leaked draft didn't change. The final version still says the country should “acknowledge the legacy of systemic racism in our criminal justice system and work together to eliminate the racial disparities that endure to this day.”
Ebonie Riley, a senior vice president at the National Action Network, a civil rights organization led by Rev. Al Sharpton, said it was important to leave that in.
“If we continue to hide in the shadows conversations that we need to have out loud, that becomes part of the problem," she said.
To balance the tone, more language was added about “rising rates of violent crime” and how “reinforcing the partnership between law enforcement and communities is imperative for combating crime and achieving lasting public safety.”
A phrase about how deadly force should only be used as “a last resort when there is no reasonable alternative” was cut. However, the executive order requires federal law enforcement officers to prioritize de-escalation and then intervention if they see another officer using excessive force.
A significant portion of the order is dedicated to collecting information, such as creating a database to track misconduct by federal officers and expanding tools for analyzing the use of force.
“When we talk about what a fair criminal justice system looks like, a big part of that is understanding what the data is," said Danielle Conley, the White House deputy counsel.
As an executive order, the new policies are limited to federal agencies. But administration officials plan to attach strings to federal funding to persuade local police departments to adopt similar rules.
“Simply having these words on paper is not going to save lives,” said Udi Ofer, deputy national political director at the American Civil Liberties Union.
On May 15, Biden attended an annual memorial for officers killed in the line of duty. After Biden posed for photos with people at the memorial, Pasco stuck around for a private conversation.
There wasn’t much time left until the second anniversary of Floyd’s death, May 25, and no one at the White House wanted the day to pass without an agreement.
“We gave everything we had to give," Pasco recalled telling Biden. "And your staff made a lot of concessions, too. So as long as it remains the way it is, we’re good with it.”
Pasco said Biden responded, “I’m going to take a look at it, and if I see any problems, I’ll let you know about it.”
But there weren’t any, and the deal was done.
Officials began inviting key players to the signing ceremony just a few days before, and some were only notified the previous day. A process that had nearly been unraveled by a leak reached the finish line without disruption.
In addition to Floyd's family, the audience included relatives of other Black people — Michael Brown, Elijah McClain, Amir Locke, Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor — who had been killed by law enforcement over the years.
Not everyone was mollified. The Movement for Black Lives issued a statement calling Biden's executive order “a poor excuse for the transformation of public safety that he promised." But Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, argued that the order represented progress.
“If we refuse to sit at the table, or allow for the political climate to overshadow public policy opportunities, we all suffer as a result," he said.
In his speech, Biden said Congress still needed to pass legislation, but he described the executive order as "the most significant police reform in decades."
“Let me say there are those who seek to drive a wedge between law enforcement and the people they serve, those who peddle the fiction that public trust and public safety are in opposition to one another," Biden said.
He added, "We know that’s not true."
When Biden finished, Floyd's 8-year-old daughter, Gianna, approached. “You're getting so big,” Biden told her.
She sat down at the desk where the president had signed the order. Vice President Kamala Harris handed her the pen that Biden had used.
“You know what she told me when I saw her when she was a little girl two years ago?” Biden said. “Seriously, she pulled me aside and she said, ‘My daddy is going to change the world.’”