Sessions supporters scoff at civilian distrust of police during confirmation hearing

Criticism of cops is “totally without foundation,” senior senator tells police union leader.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

There isn’t any good reason to distrust police or scrutinize their use of force decisions, two supporters of the man likely to be America’s next Attorney General agreed Wednesday.

Civilian distrust of police “is totally without foundation,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said during confirmation hearings for Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL).

The senator’s claim that there’s no reasonable basis for Americans to be skeptical of what law enforcement tells them about police encounters with citizens came during question of Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) head Chuck Canterbury, a Sessions supporter. Hatch cited newly released polling of police officers from the Pew Research Center which found most cops are more reluctant to use force or stop and question civilians on the street after years of intense and public scrutiny of police shootings and ugly non-fatal arrests.

Canterbury agreed with Hatch, citing an October case in Chicago where an officer said she decided it was better to let herself be beaten unconscious than to use her taser on her assailant, who was subdued by her partner. “She said it wasn’t worth what she would put herself through to deploy a taser,” Canterbury said.

Previous polling from the same researchers helps explain the foundations of civilian distrust of officers. While 75 percent of white respondents said they trust officers to use force appropriately and to treat people equally regardless of race, barely one-third of black respondents to Pew’s previous polling shared that confidence.

It’s not hard to understand why. Comprehensive investigations of common police practices in dozens of American cities during the Obama administration documented routine harassment, civil rights violations, and heavy-handed treatment of minority citizens even without any apparent probable cause for the encounters.

While police killings have drawn media and protester attention with increasing frequency and volume in the past few years, there is also a second tier of nasty but non-fatal interactions between cops and citizens documented on video. Officers in Greensboro, North Carolina, violently arrested Dejuan Yourse on his mother’s front porch last summer after a neighbor called police because she thought he was trying to break into the house. Yourse calmly explained and identified himself to one officer, only to be treated suspiciously by the second. The officer escalated the encounter, Yourse tried to walk away, and the officer tackled, punched, and handcuffed him.

Such escalations and incivility toward black citizens by those charged to serve and protect them are even more widespread than the questionable or unjustifiable killings of black men and women that have dragged down popular trust in police institutions in recent years. It’s not a new phenomenon, although white people living in wealthier neighborhoods have had little exposure to the realities of police conduct toward minority Americans prior to the recent wave of media attention and street activism.

The same Pew report Hatch cited notes that 86 percent of officers say their jobs are harder because of “high-profile incidents between police and blacks,” and that 93 percent are more concerned about their safety as a result.

Law enforcement is a dangerous job. By embracing that danger, the men and women who go into the profession have traditionally earned high esteem in society.

But officer training tends to instill a paranoid, reflexively violent approach to encounters with civilians, teaching trainees far more about how to kill and incapacitate people they decide are threatening than it does about how to manage and deescalate encounters on the street. By emphasizing a shoot-first mindset in training, police institutions have naturally handed back some of that same cultural acclaim for bearing the risks of enforcing society’s laws.

The recent and widening cracks in our mental image of police nobility are of course hard to deal with on the front lines. But they aren’t coming out of nowhere. They are a direct response to daily experience with profiling, harassment, escalation, violence, and routine deprivation of basic constitutional rights.

Reform efforts through President Obama’s Department of Justice have often made cops and their supporters bristle, especially when civilians who have never walked a beat try to tell police how to do their jobs. But those hard conversations are producing valuable realignments in how police view their responsibilities to the public, and to civil rights laws as well as criminal ones.

Canterbury’s support for Sessions’ nomination appears to come in part from a sense that he will reverse those reforms. Sessions himself hinted as much on the first day of his confirmation hearings.

The administration’s desire to roll back the progress that criminal justice reformers have made in recent years is clear. President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of a tough law-and-order administration.

It’s hard to find a pair of cops more hostile to civil liberties, due process, and racial equity criticisms of police than Milwaukee County Sheriff Dave Clarke and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, both prominent Trump supporters. Canterbury’s own organization has treated the simple declaration that “Black Lives Matter” as some kind of war cry, leaning into the notion that criticizing police for letting their commitment to public service lapse is part of a deliberate assault on officers’ safety.

It’s hard for anyone familiar with the evidence compiled by Obama’s DOJ to understand the closed-eared reactions of the law enforcement community. But if you’re convinced that skepticism of police “is totally without foundation,” then it makes sense to shut down conversations about reform — and to be excited about the prospect of an Attorney General Jeff Sessions.