In a speech delivered last week to a group of black law enforcement executives meeting in Atlanta, Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised an end to the second-guessing of police he said was all too common in the previous administration.
“We don’t need to tell police not to do their jobs,” Sessions said.
It’s a message that’s resonated with the rank-and-file, some of whom felt — fairly or not — that they were under siege during the presidency of Barack Obama.
A little more than 200 days into the Trump administration, many police officers like what they’ve seen. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has struck a tough, law-and-order tone consistent with his record as a federal prosecutor and U.S. senator.
Already, Sessions has vowed to do away with consent decrees, court-enforced oversight that gave the Justice Department the power to reform policing practices in local departments. He has taken steps to lengthen sentences for drug offenders, even those convicted of non-violent drug crimes. And Sessions has endorsed so-called broken window policing, cracking down on petty crimes.
“There was a fundamental lack of understanding about how police operate,” said attorney Lance LoRusso, who represents many officers. “Now, they see an administration that has respect for the job that they do.”
Donald Trump made no secret of his strong law enforcement leanings on the campaign trail. The Republican secured endorsements from the National Fraternal Order of Police — which sat out the 2012 election — and the National Border Patrol Council, which had never before endorsed a presidential candidate, en route to defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton. And while there’s no way to compute how many of the nation’s roughly 760,000 full-time officers voted for Trump, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest law enforcement was among the new president’s most enthusiastic constituencies.
In Sessions, Trump found a like-minded AG.
“Consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end run around the democratic process,” Sessions wrote in 2008. In April the new attorney general announced the DOJ would be reviewing all ongoing consent decrees. There are currently none in effect in Georgia.
Although it’s still too early to tell, Sessions’ track record suggests there will be little to no federal oversight of state and local law enforcement. When asked if he had reviewed the Justice Department’s reports detailing allegedly unconstitutional policing in municipalities including Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, Sessions said he had read summaries and found their conclusions to be not “not so scientifically based.”
“He’s sending a clear message that victims of police brutality don’t matter as much as law enforcement,” said attorney Chris Stewart, who has represented the families of several men killed by law enforcement, including Walter Scott in Charleston and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. “Those officers who skirt the rules have been emboldened.”
Stewart said federal involvement was crucial in bringing more attention to issues involving police use of force, de-militarization and de-escalation.
“Acknowledging there are some problems in law enforcement does not make you ‘anti-police,’ Stewart said. “It’s mind-blowing to me that trying to hold people accountable is somehow leading to higher crime.”
Meanwhile, reforms outlined in the President’s 21st Century Task Force on Policing, commissioned by the Obama administration to address tensions between police and the communities they serve, appear to run counter to Sessions’ “law and order” mandate.
In his speech to National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Sessions said officers “must not abandon proven techniques and procedures.”
Those include “broken windows” policing, a belief — endorsed by the attorney general — that by enforcing petty crimes such as public intoxication and marijuana possession, a less lawless atmosphere will prevail, one that discourages more serious crimes from occurring. Critics say that strategy unfairly targets minorities and contributes to an “us versus them” mentality in low-income communities when it comes to the police.
“I think there’s a recognition that how policing was done for a couple of decades was largely ineffective,” said Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields.
Facing a rising murder rate, Shields, who took over as chief at the first of this year, instructed her officers to focus on quality arrests, not quantity. As of July 22nd, Atlanta has seen its murder rate decline 27 percent from this same time in 2016.
“We practiced, for many years, broken windows policing,” Shields said. “We practiced, for many years, locking up a large amount of people.”
Those policies weren’t working, the chief said.
Former DeKalb County Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander, who served on Obama’s policing task force, said Sessions doesn’t appear to recognize the level of mistrust between some communities and law enforcement.
That trust won’t be rebuilt by merely emphasizing law and order, said Alexander, now deputy mayor of Rochester, New York.
“There’s still more conversation that needs to take place to make sure we have a Justice Department that emphasizes fair and equitable treatment for everyone,” he said.
It’s a conversation Sessions is unlikely to invite.
Though they don’t consider him an ally, supporters of police reform doubt Sessions will be able to derail changes that have already been instituted.
“I think the ship has already sailed on many of these issues,” said Gary Cordner, a professor of criminal justice emeritus at Kutztown University and a former police officer. “Much of the leadership within police agencies is committed to community policing, greater transparency and more accountability.”
Whether that extends to officers on the street is another matter. Shields discovered that recently when she suspended an officer who repeatedly punched a suspect for 20 days. An internal review concluded that Officer Quinton Green’s actions were justified and his suspension drew criticism from the police union and some on the city council.
“The concern I have is with agencies where 21st Century Policing was viewed as a foreign concept,” Shields said. “If there’s no longer an incentive to go down that road, I worry those agencies will be less inclined to embrace the reforms.”
But LoRusso said the real concern should lie in attracting and retaining officers. Departments across the nation are finding it increasingly difficult to lure new recruits and, according to LoRusso, a lack of support is as big a reason as low wages.
“They don’t have a lot of money, they don’t have a lot of benefits and they don’t have a lot of respect,” he said. “They feel they’re going to be questioned no matter what they do.”
LoRusso said he is hopeful the new administration will reverse that trend.
“Instead of a criticizing, now you have a president who tells law enforcement, ‘thank you,’ ” he said.