News Brief: Policing Order, U.S. Troops In Germany, Hanging Deaths Probed

Jun 16, 2020
Originally published on June 16, 2020 8:16 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump will sign an executive order on policing today.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. He's been under pressure to act. The nationwide protests after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd included demonstrations outside the White House. The president was asked yesterday about his goals for police reform. And he led with his signature phrase, which is usually taken to mean police controlling the streets.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want law and order. And we want it done fairly, justly. We want it done safely. But we want law and order. This is about law and order. But it's about justice, also.

INSKEEP: Administration officials have rejected the idea that police departments have a problem with systemic racism.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been talking with senior administration officials. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What's in the president's executive order?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the package includes or focuses on three main areas. One, it creates a database to track police officers with misconduct complaints against them. Two, it would use federal grants to incentivize departments to meet higher certification standards. That means training on de-escalation techniques and limiting the use of chokeholds, except in extreme situations. And third, it calls on departments to involve social workers on some of these calls that deal with things like homelessness, mental illness and addiction. A senior administration official said the discussion today will include both police officers as well as families of people who were killed by police officers. The goal, another official said, is to, quote, "have the discussion the country needs to have so we can turn that anger in the country into action and hope."

KING: OK. So police officers will be involved in these discussions. We know, Franco, that holding officers accountable can be very difficult because they have the protection of unions. There's been a lot of good reporting on that lately. Does the president's executive order confront unions at all?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I posed that question to the officials. They did not address the unions directly with me. Instead, I was told that there is accountability in the credentialing process. A second senior administration official charged that many police departments, including in Minneapolis, are operating using outdated standards and training materials. You know, what's not expected to address - this executive order - is concerns that police treat African Americans and people of color unfairly. The officials say the focus is on breaking down barriers and working with law enforcement, not demonizing the police.

KING: Given what we've learned about how many police departments there are in this country, the ways in which they all do things differently, will an executive order from the president have any teeth?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, that's a good question. Often, the answer to that kind of thing here in Washington comes from whether there's money behind it. And the officials readily acknowledge that there is not money or a specific funding tied to this. A challenge is that police departments are generally run at the state and local level, which makes widespread change difficult. But they argue that they can use federal grants to incentivize police departments to do the right thing. But they acknowledge they need the attorney general and Congress to provide funding to have a greater impact.

KING: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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KING: All right. President Trump says the U.S. is going to start cutting the number of its military personnel who are stationed in Germany.

INSKEEP: We are obliged to note that when the president says something will happen, it often does not happen. It's not a critical statement - just a reality. But he did tell reporters yesterday he wants only 25,000 troops to remain in Germany. There are about 34 1/2 thousand now. The president did not appear to have consulted Germany, other NATO allies or members of Congress about this.

KING: NPR international correspondent Rob Schmitz has been covering this story from Berlin. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So the president says he's doing this because Germany doesn't pay its NATO bills. That is not quite right, is it?

SCHMITZ: No, NATO doesn't send bills to its 30 member states in the mail. But President Trump and presidents before him have been frustrated by Germany's level of defense spending, though Trump has been much more belligerent about it. In 2014, NATO members agreed that by 2024, each member state would spend 2% of their GDP on defense. Germany spends around 1.3% of its GDP now and says it's on its way to 2% but that it won't be able to do that until 2031. And that's irked President Trump.

KING: OK. The president comes out. He says this. What does the German government say in response?

SCHMITZ: Well, a German Defense Ministry spokesperson has given us, NPR, a vague statement that says Germany and the U.S. have collaborated well over the years on missions and NATO exercises and that it assumes this will continue to be the case in the future. When the news of this broke more than a week ago, German politicians had a range of reactions. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called U.S.-German relations complicated since Trump became president. The country's far-left party celebrated the drawdown, saying the U.S. should take all of its soldiers and its nuclear weapons out of Germany. The German ambassador to the U.S. said that U.S. troops are in Germany not to protect Germany but for America's own security interests.

KING: It's worth asking - U.S. troops have been in Germany since the Nazi defeat in World War Two. They were a big part of Europe's defense during the Cold War. That's that collaboration you're talking about. But what do U.S. troops do in Germany now?

SCHMITZ: Well, their mission has changed over the years. And they're no longer there to primarily protect Europe or Germany, for that matter. They're there to give the U.S. a strategic advantage in its conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany is the largest U.S. airbase outside the U.S. Landstuhl Hospital is the largest U.S. hospital outside the U.S. You know, they've been crucial for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and for the fight against ISIS. And that's why so many U.S. troops are there.

KING: Where does this statement by President Trump and this reaction by Germany leave the NATO alliance?

SCHMITZ: Well, the fact that President Trump did not bother to tell Germany or any other NATO member state that he was going to do this shows how dismissive the U.S. has become about its allies and its international commitments. If this troop drawdown actually does happen, it will undoubtedly damage the cohesion of NATO. And it'll send a message both to U.S. allies, as well as adversaries, like Russia and China, that America's commitment to NATO and its mission is wavering.

KING: OK. At this point, still, I guess, a fairly big if. NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Rob, thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Noel.

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KING: OK, we want to warn you that this next story is a very disturbing one.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Two black men were found dead in southern California, each of them hanging from a tree. Authorities first said both deaths were suicides, but there were days of protest. And the sheriff's department in Los Angeles County now says one of the deaths may not have been a suicide. And they will investigate further.

KING: Emily Elena Dugdale of member station KPCC has been following this story. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY ELENA DUGDALE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Tell me about the two men and what we do know so far about their deaths.

DUGDALE: Yes. So on May 31, a 38-year-old man named Malcolm Harsch was found dead hanging from a tree near the city library in Victorville, Calif. Now, that's about 90 minutes from LA. That case was largely underreported until last Wednesday, when 24-year-old Robert Fuller was also found hanging from a tree in a park in Palmdale, Calif. That's only about 50 miles from where Harsch was found.

Now, the families of both men think the deaths were lynchings, not suicides. Fuller's family and friends say he didn't have any mental health issues and that he was in the prime of his life. And my colleague Josie Huang actually spoke to a woman named Tommie Anderson (ph) who was one of Fuller's close friends. Now, Anderson said Fuller was excited about an upcoming group trip to Las Vegas and the rising Black Lives Matter movement.

TOMMIE ANDERSON: Robert didn't die here. And that's what I want people to completely understand - that he did not die here. He didn't come to this park and hang himself. Somebody brought him here and did this to him.

KING: OK. So the sheriff's office, which first said Mr. Fuller's death was a suicide, is now saying, we don't actually know what happened to him.

DUGDALE: Yeah, so actually, they didn't present any new evidence at a press conference yesterday. They just explained that they initially thought it was likely a suicide because there was no evidence of foul play. Here's what the county's medical examiner, Jonathan Lucas, said.

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JONATHAN LUCAS: We felt better that we should look into it a little more deeply and carefully, just considering all the circumstances at play.

DUGDALE: So California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said his office will assist the sheriff's department in the Fuller investigation. And yesterday's press conference came after days of rallies that were fueled by anger over George Floyd's killing. Many of the black residents in the area say they have a strained relationship with the sheriff's department. A four-year investigation starting in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Justice found housing discrimination in Palmdale aided by the sheriff's department against black residents. And in recent weeks, amidst nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, there has been at least one shooting death of a black man at the hands of a sheriff deputy in the area.

KING: OK. So Mr. Fuller's death will be examined more carefully. The same is not true of Mr. Harsch's death so far. How are people in that region in Southern California reacting to all of this?

DUGDALE: Yeah, so friends and family say, you know, it's not enough to just say it's not a suicide. They're calling for an independent investigation led by the California attorney general, not just supporting the sheriff's work. You know, it's not like they just don't trust the local law enforcement. The community is very aware of the well-documented history of neo-Nazi groups in the region. And we've seen a rising trend, actually, in hate crimes that are linked to the demographic shifts in the area - from overwhelmingly white to more black and brown as people leave Greater Los Angeles in search for more affordable housing. So on Monday, civil rights activist Najee Ali referred to those trends at a press conference in downtown LA.

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NAJEE ALI: I found it very strange they were hung within days of each other in Palmdale and Victorville, an area that we know is frequented by skinhead and white nationalism who definitely want to hang onto that white supremacy.

DUGDALE: So the momentum seems to be building around those cases. There are multiple demonstrations scheduled this week in both cities where the men were found dead.

KING: Emily Elena Dugdale of KPCC. Thank you, Emily.

DUGDALE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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