The Justice Department under President Barack Obama helped local law enforcement and the communities they serve with its careful monitoring of troubled police agencies. But now the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has signaled that the Trump administration would back off from playing that important role — one that's pivotal for repairing relations between police officers and aggrieved minority residents in cities across America. This is a backward step that endangers both policing and race relations.
Sessions made the remarks at a recent appearance in Washington before the nation's state attorneys general, the chief law enforcement officers in states across the country. In prepared remarks, he maintained that law enforcement "as a whole" had been "unfairly maligned and blamed" in recent years for the unacceptable acts "of a few bad actors." And he claimed a siege mentality had taken root among officers, making them cautious and isolated, keeping them from doing "the hard but necessary work of up-close policing." He drew a connection between this sense of abandonment and a spike in violent crime.
As a result, Sessions said, the administration intended to "pull back" from investigating those agencies charged with abuse. "Rather than dictating to local police how to do their jobs," he said, "we should use our money, research and expertise to help them." And that could require an end to spending "scarce federal resources to sue them in court."
The deadly attacks on police in Dallas and elsewhere in recent years should be condemned as strongly as the deaths and abuse of black residents at the hands of police. By insinuating the public must choose sides, Sessions has inflamed an emotional issue and made a scapegoat of something that works — federal probes that help defuse local racial tensions, clean up police departments and give officers higher standing in their communities.
No one can dispute that it took the Justice Department to detail the breathtaking scope of abuse and excessive force that became systemic within the Chicago Police Department. Residents there — as in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities — had nowhere else to turn. And the problem is not, as Sessions airily dismissed it, a matter of "a few bad actors." Police departments that lack morale, organization and discipline are powder kegs that are unable to build trust, clean the ranks and keep peace in their communities.
The Justice Department has investigated more than two dozen law enforcement agencies in recent years, demonstrating that allegations of abuse are hardly contrived or isolated. But even beyond those jurisdictions, the department has played a helpful and unifying role in cities such as Tampa, where the mayor invited a lower-level review after a Tampa Bay Times' report that found the city had stopped black bicyclists at a far higher rate than whites. After the Justice Department review, Tampa largely eliminated the practice, which amounted to harassment in the very black neighborhoods where authorities needed greater public cooperation.
These Justice investigations have cleaned up cities that would not have done so on their own, and they have improved the level of trust between street cops and residents in some of America's toughest places. Sessions also sent the wrong message by giving new voice to the theory that police officers are hunkering down instead of doing their jobs. There is work to do in fostering better confidence in the police in minority neighborhoods, and it's true that neighborhoods that don't cooperate only victimize themselves. But the problem is abusive police tactics or officers — not the fair criticism of either. The Justice Department has an important oversight role.