The Trump administration is most comfortable with power and the powerful.
On the world stage, this attitude has taken the form of a relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin that is cozier than ones with traditional allies such as Germany’s Angela Merkel. That sentiment trickles down within America’s borders, as well, to Trump’s words on policing, where for the self-proclaimed “law and order” president, force wins out over conciliatory tactics every time — including in his own “get ’em out of here” rally cries that have resulted in his own legal headaches.
It’s no surprise, then, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is following the Trump lead.
He didn’t need much nudging to retreat from Obama administration-led actions in the Justice Department. Sessions has criticized videos that reveal police misconduct more than the conduct itself, and has never been a fan of federal investigations into local police departments. This week he ordered a Justice Department review of consent decrees that community leaders, citizens and some police departments have agreed are needed but that Sessions sees as having a negative effect on crime prevention and police morale.
Not content with slowing down or halting current federal investigations, Sessions has said he will re-examine agreements already in place or in process, considered by courts and, sometimes reluctantly, approved by everyone involved.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has said her city will proceed with promised reform whether the Justice Department ultimately follows through or not. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis agreed, and told The Baltimore Sun, “We have to continue to stress the necessity of constitutional policing in Baltimore.”
The city invited the Justice Department investigation, which found a pattern of discriminatory policing, after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody. In her budget, Pugh has allocated funds for training, new technology and monitoring, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has pledged state support.
But will it be enough if the Justice Department turns away?
Reading is hard
Sessions has also pushed back against an examination of the Chicago Police Department, a study he admits, without shame, that he has not read. This is the city that looked inward when a video of white officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times went viral in 2015, where former police commander Jon Burge served time for lying under oath about police torture, and where, it has been reported, police conducted brutal interrogations at its Homan Square facility.
It is also a city where murder rates and gang violence have risen, destroying families and ensnaring children on the playground and in their homes, and where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been criticized for doing too little. No one wants to ignore the problem or the need for solutions.
In fact, minority and urban communities crave diligent policing. But it has to be responsible and responsive. Bettie Jones, a 55-year-old Chicago mother and grandmother, was shot and killed by a police officer — “accidentally,” it was ruled — after she opened the door for him to reach someone else in her building. Would Sessions not support a study of this sort of “collateral damage”? Would he permit it to go on in neighborhoods that resembled his own?
Contrary to the narrative that says the Obama Justice Department was reflexively biased against law enforcement, its extensive reports on Ferguson, Missouri, found that the evidence showed Officer Darren Wilson should not be charged in the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, and also that the disproportionate targeting of minorities to meet the city’s budget led to unconstitutional practices and a toxic relationship between police officers and citizens.
Not just a few?
Sessions sees the problem as one of individuals, not systems, though, and his department insists that “misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe.”
It’s the “bad apple” theory versus statistics and facts that show how minorities are disproportionately targeted for such tactics as “stop and frisk,” though the majority of citizens stopped walk away — not with a ticket or a charge, but with bad feelings toward the people who should be their protectors.
Every American needs to follow the Constitution and obey the law. That includes officers, who should “snitch” on the lawbreakers in their midst, just as they admonish those in troubled communities to do.
After Sessions’ actions, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, observed in a statement that consent decrees are “only issued after careful study, review, and approval by a federal judge, often after a determination that law enforcement acted in an unconstitutional manner.”
“These latest developments are particularly ironic,” Henderson said, “given that in the same memo outlining a review of these vital consent decrees, Attorney General Sessions also noted that ‘local law enforcement must protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the public.’”
As one who has lived in the communities described as hellscapes, where citizens are viewed on sight as suspects, and also in neighborhoods where you are given the benefit of the doubt, I recognize that while policing is different, the hopes and dreams of the majority of the people who live in these places are remarkably similar: peaceful and productive lives for themselves and their children.
Neighborhoods want to be protected, not occupied — its members listened to as partners by the police who work for them. Improving the trust between law enforcement and the communities they cover is the logical and proven way to ease tensions and make communities safer.
The Trump administration’s philosophy, enforced by its own top cop Jeff Sessions, instead seems intent on punishing the powerless and ending the needed conversation consent decrees have started.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.