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Sessions Turns Back on Police Reform

The Justice Department released a statement Friday, Sept. 17, 2017 announcing changes to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ statement explains that, “Changes to this program will fulfill [his] commitment to respect local control and accountability, while still delivering important tailored resources to local law enforcement to fight violent crime.” These changes are described as a “course correction” in an effort to focus resources on fighting violent crime, rather than allocating resources towards auditing and reforming police forces. Sessions’ decision marks a reversal in Obama-era police reform measures which emphasized collaboration between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and local police forces; as of September 15, the DOJ no longer needs to publish public reports on the failings of local police departments, which could possibly lead to further divisiveness and distrust between communities and their police departments.

The Attorney General’s decision comes at a sensitive and contentious time as protests have recently erupted in St. Louis over the acquittal of former white police officer Jason Stockley, who was accused of unlawfully shooting and killing Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man, during a police chase back in 2011. The people of St. Louis were shocked at the court’s decision, just as they were shocked at the decision to acquit Officer Wilson back in 2014 for the killing of Michael Brown. The court’s ruling in the case of Anthony Smith further heightened tensions in the St. Louis community, causing people to question whether or not the legal system is fulfilling its duty to protect the rights of citizens. Both the DOJ’s policy reversal and the St. Louis court’s decision to acquit Stockley showcases a lack of solidarity with black Americans who have suffered injustice at the hands of police brutality.

The Trump administration and the DOJ presently seek to focus not on the harm citizens suffer at the hands of militarized and violent police officers, but rather on boosting police officer morale. The DOJ's reversal will allow police departments to sweep under the rug any action perceived to be unjustified, allowing them to further consolidate power and diminish transparency with the communities they serve. Sessions believes that by highlighting the poor actions of a few, the American public will subsequently view law enforcement as dishonorable and illegitimate. The Attorney General and the Trump administration as a whole are clearly expressing their interest in protecting officer morale rather than protecting the lives of innocent citizens who fall victim to police brutality–citizens like Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and Anthony Lamar Smith. Subsequently, reporting on police brutality cases will be infrequent, even if police brutality itself continues to occur in this country.

Previously, under the Obama administration, the DOJ routinely published reports on local police departments that violated constitutional law or exhibited a disproportionate use of force against black Americans. In a 2015 report on the Ferguson Police Department (FPD), the Justice Department found that the FPD often detained and arrested people without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, respectively. For example, in 2013, an FPD officer handcuffed and arrested a black man in the parking lot of an apartment building while on his way to arrest another individual in the building. The officer kept the man detained in the back of his car, but as it turned out, the man was the landlord of the intended arrestee. The landlord filed a complaint citing racial discrimination, and while the FPD defended the actions of the officer, the DOJ argues that, “even a temporary detention, however, constitutes a deprivation of liberty and must be justified under the Fourth Amendment.” More recently, the Justice Department published a report on the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) in 2016, explicitly stating that the BPD discriminates against black Americans in its enforcement activities. From 2000 to 2015, black Americans accounted for, “84% of stops, despite comprising only 63% of the population.” Additionally, the racial disparity accounted for in the multitude of arrests, stops, and searches of mostly black Americans undermines community trust and prevents effective law enforcement in the Baltimore community. BPD officers displayed various trends in cases of excessive force as well, with officers using excessive force against juveniles and those with mental disabilities; unreasonable force could also be racially motivated, as the nation saw in the case of Freddie Gray in 2015. Without such reports, the public will be left ignorant to the injustice occurring within their very own communities. The DOJ’s reports are central to building community trust with respect to police departments, but it is evident that Sessions is preoccupied with relentlessly supporting the already powerful police departments while minimizing, and even glossing over, the harm inflicted upon minority communities.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) fired back at the Trump administration’s indifference to police reform. “This decision is wrong, reckless, insensitive, and immature. It also further divides police departments and communities–rich and poor, black and white,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) said. Richmond went on to acknowledge the relationship between the St. Louis protests and the police change in the COPS office, saying that instead of restoring trust between police departments and the communities they serve, the Trump administration seeks to further divide the nation. With the DOJ refusing to shed light on cases of police brutality and impropriety, it is up to the people to continue to speak the names of those who have lost their lives to excessive force, to reveal to the rest of the American public that the unchecked institutions set in place to protect us continue to be the ones that harm us.

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