There are two kinds of Americans. There are those who run toward the police when they feel afraid. Then there are those who run away from the police because police frighten them. They run because they’ve seen police shootings of civilians — maybe even a neighbor, a friend or a family member — or they’ve experienced racial profiling. The irony isn’t lost on them; the instinctive need to run from police, who are sworn to protect you, is a betrayal that twists the gut.
Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General, speaks only to “run-toward-the-police” Americans. In his imaginary America, the police are always there to help, aside from maybe a few bad apples. The real problem, he wrote in a recent directive issued to the Justice Department, is flagging “public respect” for police and declining law enforcement “morale.” To restore respect and morale, Mr. Sessions directed the Justice Department to “immediately review” police reforms enacted under President Obama, including “existing or contemplated consent orders.” Such orders are aimed at correcting a pattern or practice of civil rights abuses committed by a police department, such as the damning report describing structural bias and abuse in the city of Baltimore’s police department.
Mr. Sessions’ directive is shockingly out of touch, ahistorical and dangerous. He writes as if Black Lives Matter never happened, as if Tamir Rice is still in middle school, and as if the last few years were never marked by rebellion in the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore and so many other cities. He writes as if all Americans share his instinct to run toward the police. He ignores the police violence and racially biased policing that have scarred the relationship between many communities and those who police them, overlooking the shameful racial disproportion that undermines the very legitimacy of our justice system. Instead, Mr. Sessions wags his finger at those who leverage the “misdeeds of individual bad actors” to “impugn the honor of police officers.” He concludes that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” Indeed, Justice Department lawyers even asked the court overseeing the Baltimore case to pause its proceedings to permit Mr. Sessions’ review.
But, for many Americans who have been shaken by police abuse and racial profiling, isn’t it precisely the federal government’s role to enjoin civil rights abuses? The use of federal power to ensure constitutional rights was, after all, the entire purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, earlier, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Even the most conservative thinkers see a strong role for the federal government in curtailing gross abuses of official authority. In Mr. Sessions’ time machine, the real problem is a failure to appropriately honor police, rather than patterns of police acting dishonorably.
This is the crippling inconsistency at the heart of Mr. Sessions’ effort to undo civil rights enforcement: his philosophy will make us less safe. After Ferguson, it should be obvious that victims and witnesses of crime who run from police do not report crimes. How many of the thousands marching in the streets of American cities against police abuse are in a hurry to call police to report a shooting, a theft, or a robbery? The less police are trusted, and the more they are feared, the more crimes go unreported and unsolved. That makes us all unsafe.
If Mr. Sessions were serious about safety, as he claims, he’d be the most vocal proponent of strong police reform. He’d recognize, as so many law enforcement and city leaders have, that credibility is the cornerstone of safety. When police abuse is chronic, local systems of accountability have broken down, and federal oversight is necessary to potentiate change. To restore trust, troubled police departments may actually need — or even agree with — a thorough investigation and reform plan facilitated by federal authorities and overseen by an independent judge. It shows courage. It shows an evenhanded approach to justice. It can be a pivot point for these departments in restoring trust and repairing the lines of communication between those who experience crime and those sworn to address it.
Sadly, Mr. Sessions opts to turn his back on his sworn duty to protect and defend the Constitution. Instead, he chooses to stoke white fear for political gain – fomenting white fear has been a standard tactic of the right for decades. Stuck in his rhetorical time machine, Jeff Sessions has missed his appointment with history and is poised to further divide our nation into its two camps — those who call the police, and those who continue to be too afraid to call on police to protect them.