As the world focuses on state violence from Syria to Iraq to Yemen to North Korea, the groundwork is being laid in the United States for unchecked state violence here at home. Donald Trump is making good on at least one of his many campaign promises: promoting unfettered police power. His point person on these goals, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is leading the Justice Department through a tectonic shift, abandoning Obama-era efforts to protect civil and voting rights, threatening more deportations and resuscitating the decades-old, failed “War on Drugs.”
This week, Sessions told the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “Unfortunately, in recent years … law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the crimes and unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors.” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, “What we see with Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an effort to basically take us back in time … this is a person who’s stuck in the ‘80s, and in some instances, stuck in the ‘50s.”
Ifill continued, “It’s a kind of a retro view of law enforcement and policing in which he’s attempting to wipe out the last 30 years of progress in this country, to the extent that it’s been made—the last four years, in particular, where we’ve really been focused on the issue of policing reform.” Much of the recent efforts emanate from the summer of civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. There, on Aug. 9, an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, was shot dead by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, sparking months of protest. By March of 2016, the City of Ferguson and the Justice Department, then under Attorney General Loretta Lynch, entered into a consent decree “with the shared recognition that the ability of a police department to protect the community it serves is only as strong as the relationship it has with that community.”
Before long, right-wing groups like The Heritage Foundation began referring to “The Ferguson Effect,” claiming that consent decrees or any other type of judicial or civilian oversight of police actually increases crime by tying the hands of law enforcement. This argument has no basis in fact, but, like many of the policies being pursued by the Trump administration, now appears to be guiding official policy.
After the death of another young African-American man, Freddie Gray, who suffered serious spinal-cord injuries while in Baltimore police custody in April 2015, more civil unrest and protest led to another consent decree. Sessions attempted to delay implementation of that agreement, but last week a federal judge dismissed the motion. In a March 31 memorandum, Sessions instructed the Justice Department to review all “existing or contemplated consent decrees,” signaling his intention to undermine the more than 100 such accords agreed to under the Obama administration.
“The statute that governs these investigations and consent decrees … the Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute, 42 U.S.C. 14141 … was enacted as part of the 1994 crime bill as a result of the Rodney King assault and the acquittal of those officers in the first trial,” Ifill explained. “[It] authorizes the attorney general to investigate unconstitutional policing, to engage in these consent decrees. To the extent that he [Sessions] is a law-and-order attorney general, this is a law he’s willing to completely ignore.”
Norm Stamper knows a thing or two about policing. A 34-year veteran officer, the former Seattle police chief is author of the book “To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police.” The Seattle Police Department is under a consent decree, and Stamper says it has done wonders to improve the situation there: “There’s been a 60 percent reduction in use of force by Seattle police officers. There has been a dramatic decrease in the use of firearms, Tasers and batons.”
Here is the kicker: “Police officers themselves, through the president of the Police Officers’ Guild, are saying, ‘We’re grateful that we’re at this stage of our progress.’ The crime rate has continued to go down. Officer injuries are either flat or dropping. So there’s been no so-called Ferguson effect or de-policing,” Stamper says. About Sessions, Stamper says: “He’s clearly in lockstep with his boss. … He is clearly an apologist for the worst kind of policing in this country.”
Longtime civil-rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill sums up, “This is what Attorney General Sessions will unleash … if we are not vigilant and resistant.”