With distrust of police high and rising within the black community, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday asked African-American law enforcement leaders to serve as ambassadors for the rough-and-tumble approach to policing he and President Donald Trump favor.
Sessions’ plea for NOBLE members to serve as ambassadors to black communities came just a few days after President Donald Trump encouraged cops to get rough with people they arrest, before those suspects are charged or convicted of any actual crime. Trump’s comments on Friday were met with laughter and applause by a group of officers on Long Island.
Four days later in Atlanta, Sessions attempted to strike a somewhat different tone. His speech acknowledged low and plummeting confidence in police among black citizens, citing polling that indicates just three in ten African Americans trust law enforcement.
“You, more than perhaps any other law enforcement organization, represent crucial ambassadors to some of the communities that trust law enforcement the least,” Sessions said. “We have your back, and you have our thanks.”
The 41-year-old professional association has repeatedly called for reevaluation of police training practices and use-of-force policies, as well as more stringent oversight of officer conduct. Sessions has rejected these principles — not just in public comments over his three-decade political career, but also in his attempts to stall or reverse police reform effortsundertaken by his predecessors during former President Barack Obama’s tenure.
Even as his Tuesday speech acknowledged that black people may have some good reasons to distrust police, Sessions reasserted his view that police misconduct is an individual rather than a systemic matter. After noting the dismal polling on African American trust in law enforcement, he attributed the issue to high-profile fatal incidents rather than to patterns of profiling, detention, and harassment, which investigations initiated by the Obama administration helped bring to light.
“We all know the cases of the last several years where, in confrontations with police, lives have been cut short,” Sessions said. “Just as I am committed to defending law enforcement who use deadly force while lawfully engaged in their work, I will also hold any officer responsible breaking the law. You and I know that all it takes is one bad officer to destroy the reputations of so many who work day in and day out to build relationships in these communities and serve with honor and distinction.”
Sessions went on to criticize “mayors and city councils [who] run down police” in the wake of such deadly-force cases that have triggered unrest and fostered mistrust. The language paralleled his past criticisms of deep, thorough investigative reports that document department-wide cultures of abuse of force and the routine deprivation of constitutional rights by uniformed personnel.
NOBLE’s own public pronouncements on the nature of the policing business’ current legitimacy crisis among black citizens are quite different.
“We acknowledge the continued need for ongoing police accountability measures that restrict overzealous use of force fully recognizing the often discriminate toll minority communities have faced,” the group said in a statement in June, following the acquittal of the Minneapolis cop who killed Philando Castile. Meanwhile, Sessions has said that department-wide oversight efforts and scrutiny of whole agencies’ force practices are unfair and harmful.
“To move forward in building policy measures that focus on ensuring the rights of all citizens,” NOBLE’s statement on the Castile case went on, “we must work together with the community, law enforcement, and elected officials.” But Sessions has sought to halt such inclusive reform conversations by freezing or walking away from federal consent decrees that set court-backed reform agendas for city police forces.
The group has also supported bipartisan sentencing reform and parole reform ideas like the stalled 2015 SAFE Justice Act. Sessions, meanwhile, helped undermine existing sentencing reforms and poison the well for more ambitious efforts in that direction prior to his transition from the Senate to the Department of Justice.
Sessions’ own skepticism of the idea that police agencies can take on broadly abusive cultures — as documented in the pattern-or-practice investigations of big-city police departments across the country in recent years — might be a simple difference in opinion.
But his boss takes a far more reckless tone, even before the Friday speech that seemed to endorse the sort of “rough ride” retribution tactic that killed Freddie Gray. On the campaign trail, Trump defended police killings, criticized public anger over them, and suggested he would encourage police to “go and counterattack.”
The contrast between Sessions’ bad-apples rendering of police failures, Trump’s blithe and brash tone on police violence, and NOBLE’s more reflective and holistic assessment casts some uncomfortable shadows over the attorney general’s request for black ambassadors in blue uniforms.
Sessions didn’t take up the reform suggestions NOBLE might like to see adapted and then trust its members to help demonstrate that progress to black civilians. Instead, he laid out a one-way relationship: the president and the attorney general know what’s best for dealing with crime — they just need black cops to go explain that to other black people for them.