To reform or not to reform? That do be de question.
On February 28, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made his first major speech as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer to the National Association of Attorneys General. It was an occasion to set a tone to keep the nation healing and prevent reoccurrences of Ferguson and Baltimore. He chose to incite alarm. Despite data clearly showing that murder is at its lowest point in decades, Sessions pointed to a recent upward fluctuation in violent crime as reason to sound an alarm.
“[I]t seems to me, that crime is going back up again,” Sessions told the law enforcement group. The numbers, he said are “driving this sense that we are in danger.”
“Danger?” That’s a rather alarmist point of view. Most Americans don’t realize that in 2014, the homicide rate in the U.S. was 4.5 per 100,000– even with Chicago and New York factored in. The 2014 number followed a long downward trend and was the lowest homicide rate recorded since 1963 when the rate was 4.6 per 100,000. To find a lower homicide rate, you have to go all the way back to 1957 when the rate was only 4.0 per 100,000.
In May of last year, the New York Times ran a story addressing the increases in “[m]urders and most other types of crime,” and noted that it’s “way too early” to draw any such conclusions.
Nonetheless in a clear walk-up to the way he intends to run the DOJ, Sessions announced that his department will not follow the Obama DOJ in suing local police departments that refuse to take steps to stop excessive force or discriminatory profiling practices.
“I don’t think that it’s wrong or mean or insensitive to civil rights or human rights,” Sessions said. “I think it’s out of concern to make the lives of those, especially in poorer communities and minority communities, live a safer, happier life.”
Really? Police should be encouraged, not to stop violating the law (which is usually why the DOJ gets involved), but to get better at it?
“Somehow . . . we’ve undermined respect for police and made their job[s] more difficult,” Sessions said. “We need to help police officers get better rather than reduce their effectiveness. So, we’re going to pull back a little on this.”
Pulling back on keeping police in compliance with federal civil rights laws sounds ominous to me. But, hey, it’s all about Making America Great Again.
During the Obama years, a number of law enforcement agencies were the subjects of federal investigations that resulted in some cases to judicial oversight of police operations. Baltimore and Ferguson are two examples. In the Trump/Sessions era, though, if police departments don’t commit to improvement on their own, we can say goodbye to keeping rogue police officers in check.
There is some possible good news. Chicago’s superintendent of police, Eddie Johnson, yesterday outlined plans to shore up community policing, revise the department’s use of force policy and start a field officer training program for new officers. This is the kind of departure from Sessions’ thinking that could lessen the impact of what’s coming down the pike.
Unlike Sessions, Johnson sees the need for police reform. Back in November, 2015 a police video showed Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who is white, fire 16 shots at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald as he ran away from police during a pursuit. If you or I shot someone in the back– even if that person had initiated an attack on us– we’d be charged with a capital crime. Police should be bound by the same laws. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial.
“What’s necessary is reform,” Superintendent Johnson said, “and to that end we are going to do it. CPD is different than it was at this time last year. We don’t need a piece of paper to ensure that we’re doing it.”
Good for him. But not every top cop has the integrity of an Eddie Johnson. Chicago is only one of many places where police-community relations are in serious need of repair because of overly aggressive policing.
Law-abiding citizens embrace and celebrate police officers who serve and protect fairly. But that’s a message that has to be passed down to rank-and-file from the top. When it isn’t, only the DOJ can help. Unfortunately, we cannot expect the Sessions Justice Department to concern itself with such trivial things.
Four more years. Oh me. Oh my.