What Sessions doesn’t get about policing cops
Ferguson investigator Jonathan Smith says federal probes make officers and communities safer
Michael Brown’s death on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, 2014, changed the national conversation about policing and race. Police abuse became daily front-page news; the Black Lives Matter movement was born; race and inequality turned into mainstream political issues. Underlining much of the discussion after Brown’s shooting was a March 2015 report by the Justice Department’s civil rights division that detailed how the Ferguson police department and municipal court had destroyed the lives of thousands of African American residents. Statistics, data analysis and scores of startling stories filled the report. One man was tased after he pulled away from an officer during his pedestrian stop; a woman went to jail because she was unable to pay a parking fine.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, though, has announced that he intends to “pull back” from investigating civil rights violations by police. Instead, his Justice Department will focus on improving police morale and on federalizing more prosecutions to ensure that people convicted of crimes serve longer sentences. Sessions asserts that these steps are necessary to address what he says is a crisis in violent crime. The investigations of Ferguson and, later, of Chicago? Without having read them, Sessions dismissed the reports as “pretty anecdotal.”
The attorney general is wrong on the facts: Crime is at historic lows, major cities are safer than they’ve been in decades, and violent crime rates are half of what they were in the early 1990s. And he is wrong on the policy, as well. Tolerating widespread civil rights violations by police and giving up the Justice Department’s power to investigate misconduct will simply make matters worse and won’t help address the serious public safety issues that some communities really are suffering through. I know because I helped write the reports, and I have seen the effect they have on communities.
I was a member of the team that investigated the Ferguson Police Department and more than 20 others. Since I left the Justice Department in 2015, the division has completed additional investigations of Chicago and Baltimore. In each investigation, we reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents; interviewed police and government officials at all levels; met with hundreds of residents; and relied on the expertise of police executives, who served as consultants. We took great pains to talk to those who felt that their rights had been violated, as well as people who believed that police practices were appropriate.
We worked hard to make the reports readable and to speak to the entire communi- ty. The findings were designed to create a common set of facts that would serve as a basis for an effective remedy and facilitate reconciliation. The point was not to embarrass individual officers but to build trust and confidence between police and their communities. Often, the results of these investigations were the first step in healing the breach between police and the communities of color they serve.
Many investigations result in a court order called a consent decree, which requires a city to correct police behavior by ensuring that proper policies, training, supervision and accountability measures are in place so that violations are not repeated. Such decrees are subject to lengthy negotiations and review by a federal judge to determine if they are “fair, reasonable and adequate.” These reports and the resulting agreements for reform have made a dramatic difference.
In New Orleans, consent decree reforms implemented in 2013 led to a 28 percent drop in Taser use from 2014 to 2015; bites from police dogs declined by 10 percent in the same period. The police department has made a “remarkable turnaround,” according to the court monitor, in its handling of sexual assault and domestic violence cases, including new policies that DOJ lawyers described as a model for the nation. The monitor also saw significant improvement in the civilian complaint process, leading to increased use by residents.
In East Haven, Conn., several officers from a police department rife with racial bias were convicted of federal civil rights violations. Following a civil rights investigation, the court ordered a consent decree mandating reform of policies, training, supervision, hiring practices and officer discipline. Afterward, the court monitor noted that biased policing had fallen dramatically, and relations between police and the Latino community had improved. One community member described the change: “It’s a different world now.”
In Seattle, community trust of the police has increased since implementation of a 2012 consent decree regarding the use of force. As part of the decree, the monitor conducted annual community perception surveys. In 2013, 9 percent of African Americans and Latinos reported being victims of excessive force, and 47 percent of residents approved of the handling of traffic stops. By 2016, those numbers were 1 percent and 65 percent, respectively.
Following a 2003 consent decree to address excessive-force practices in Detroit, fatal officer-involved shootings dropped dramatically. In the five years before the Justice Department’s investigation, 47 people died in police shootings. Between 2009 and 2014, that number fell to 17. Use of chemical spray went from 460 incidents in 2000 to about 50 per year by 2014. And use of force decreased from 873 incidents in 2010 to 473 in 2013, just before the decree ended.
Federal investigations don’t lead only to concrete reforms. Just as important, they provide an official acknowledgment of how communities of color experience police mistreatment, which is essential for reconciliation. The report on Chicago this year revealed that the coverup of Laquan McDonald’s shooting was not an aberration but part of a deeply ingrained culture. In Baltimore, tens of thousands of black residents were stopped — sometimes as frequently as 30 times over a five-year period — without probable cause, and only 3.7 percent of pedestrian stops resulted in an arrest or a citation. Police officers in Baltimore were told to “lock up all the black hoodies,” a massive interference with individual liberty that did nothing to solve crime and created resentment and mistrust between the police and communities.
In Ferguson, our report detailed what happens when a police department and court place revenue above public safety and target the African American community for excessive enforcement, for the sole purpose of draining their wallets. As we showed in our reports on Newark, Cleveland, Albuquerque, Seattle, Miami and elsewhere, these problems are widespread and national in scope.
To create public safety, communities and police must work together, and that is only possible if residents have confidence that they’ll be treated fairly, within the law and with respect. In far too many places, victims are more afraid of the police than of the people who victimized them. If a domestic violence victim won’t call 911 for fear that her abuser or a bystander will end up dead; if a witness to a shooting won’t talk to the police because there is no trust; if the father of a child with mental illness is afraid of what the police will do to his daughter if he calls for help, everyone in the community is less safe. When a police officer walks down the street in a neighborhood where systemic abuse has eroded confidence, she is less safe and less effective. Only through reforms like those resulting from a civil rights investigation can trust be restored.
Arguing against DOJ intervention, Sessions claims that it’s “disrespectful [to police] for the feds to go in and try to take it over.” The problem in policing is not bad police officers. All but a few officers are dedicated and honorable public servants. But police do what they have been taught to do, within the culture of their institutions. This is a systems problem, not an individual officer problem, and our investigations target systems. Sessions would be well served to recall that the Constitution is the most fundamental law in our democracy. The routine violation of basic rights by law enforcement officers is a public safety crisis and one that the Justice Department is in the strongest position to address.
Black Lives Matter demonstrators march in Washington last summer. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that he wants to “pull back” from federal civil rights investigations of police departments, saying they’re “disrespectful” to local police.