It was no surprise when Attorney General Jeff Session announced his decision Monday to curb the Justice Department office that investigates and sometimes sues local police departments for “a pattern or practice” of unconstitutional law enforcement.
On February 28, Sessions told the National Association of Attorneys General, “We need, so far as we can, in my view, [to] help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness.” Afterwards, he told reporters, “So we’re going to try to pull back on [investigating police abuses], and I don’t think it’s wrong or mean or insensitive to civil rights or human rights.”
Sessions was signaling his intention to reverse the policy of the Obama administration Justice Department, which opened investigations into 25 of the 18,000 police departments and sheriff’s offices across the country. President Obama also enforced 19 consent decrees that resolved civil rights lawsuits filed against police in Cleveland, Baltimore, New Orleans, Ferguson, Missouri and 15 other cities.
On Monday, the New York Times reports Sessions “directed his staff to look at whether law enforcement programs adhere to principles put forth by the Trump administration, including one declaring that ‘the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn’ the work police officers perform ‘in keeping American communities safe.'”
What is surprising is that Sessions would align himself against police chiefs and federal judges when they try to address police misconduct issues that go beyond the “individual deeds of bad actors.”
The result of Sessions’ decision, said law professor Franklin Zimring in an interview with AlterNet, will be to hobble longstanding federal efforts to improve local police practices, with the help of the police.
“If you want to save one life or two, you prosecute an officer who uses excessive force,” says Zimring. “If you want to save 400 lives, you rewrite the rules on use of lethal force under a consent decree.”
Zimring is the author of the Amazon non-fiction book, When Police Kill. The book documents how and why U.S. police departments kill about 1,000 people per year. Since Jan. 1, 2017, a total of 305 people have died at the hands of U.S. law enforcement, according to a database at killedbypolice.net.
Sessions’ action, says Zimring, ignores the “tremendously beneficial effects” of consent decrees.
“Exhibit A is the Los Angeles Police Department,” he says. In 1994, the LAPD entered the first such decree with the Clinton administration’s Justice Department after the videotape of LAPD officers beating Rodney King set off massive rioting in 1992. Since then, Los Angeles has had the second best improvement in public safety statistics in the country, he said.
“Los Angeles is safer and the police practices are better, as result of the decree, no question,” Zimring said.
“The second problem,” he continued, “is that when you want to deemphasize the federal role [in investigating police practices] you will inevitably ‘leave it to the states.’ But state governments and police have near zero capacity to understand and deal with police shootings. And the individual departments are too small and self-interested to investigate properly.”
A third problem, which Sessions has yet to address, is whether the courts will go along. The consent decrees are agreements between the Justice Department, the police department and a federal judge. “The Justice Department would not be able to unilaterally unwind the agreements without court intervention,” the Times notes.
For supporters of President Trump, the Attorney General is signaling an end to the so-called “war of cops.” In fact, says Zimring, fatal assaults on police officers have declined, on a per capita basis, by 70 percent, since 1976. In the last six years, the downward trend has flattened with an average of 50 officers killed annually in the line of duty, he said.
“The argument is that if you do anything that inconveniences police officers or subjects them to liability, you support a ‘war on cops,’ and you don’t care about crime,” Zimring said. “It’s an ideological proposition. That doesn’t mean it is factually true.”
The reality of Sessions’ decision, he says, is that if any U.S. police department is “willfully engaging in constitutional violations,” they may well escape accountability under the Trump administration.
“We’re going to have to find other ways to deal with them,” Zimring said.
“Sue them in federal court, with a little help from people who are not friends with Jeff Sessions,” he said.