U.S. Senator Bob Casey
“I will vote against [Sen. Jeff Sessions’] nomination to be our next Attorney General.”
Law enforcement groups view Sessions as someone who will bring a “police-first” mentality to Justice that they say was absent during President Obama’s eight years in office.
In Sessions, they see a traditional law-and-order style enforcer who they believe will repair the relationship between the feds and local police that has grown frosty in the Obama administration.
Sessions is backed by key figures from within several prominent police groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the nation’s largest police union; the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association; the National Association of Police Organizations; and the National Sheriffs Association.
“We have about a 20-year relationship with Jeff Sessions from his time in the Senate on the Judiciary Committee and our members in Alabama who worked with him, both as state attorney general and a U.S. attorney, and the best way to sum it up is that we don’t have anything bad to say about Jeff Sessions,” FOP executive director Jim Pasco told The Hill.
“He has extraordinary insight into the demands and stresses of a police officer’s life and also has a real reverence for the rule of law. It sounds corny but it’s true, and that’s what our members pray for in a prosecutor.”
Obama’s attorneys general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, prioritized investigations into police practices, particularly in minority communities. That focus and growing nationwide attention to potential police abuses led to several high-profile Justice Department investigations into police departments in Cleveland, Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.
Some law enforcement officials believe those investigations have produced onerous new restrictions and an intrusive level of oversight that they say has stripped the police of their ability to react instinctively to potentially dangerous encounters.
And they say public criticism and the intense focus from Obama’s White House and the Justice Department have undermined law enforcement authority at the local level by demonizing police.
Those tensions exploded into the open just months into the Obama administration in July 2009, when police Sgt. James Crowley, who is white, arrested black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home for “disorderly conduct” after responding to a call about an alleged break-in.
That incident sparked a national debate on race, which Obama inflamed after saying the police officer had “acted stupidly.”
The president later backed away from those remarks, saying that both men could have responded differently to calm the situation. Obama eventually held a “beer summit” with Crowley and Gates at the White House, but the incident badly damaged his standing in the eyes of the police groups.
Law enforcement officials are optimistic there will be fewer explosive incidents like that under a Sessions Justice Department.
“Sessions presumes that law enforcement officials in the main are good folks,” said Bill Barr, an attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. “He’s not going to be afraid to go after rogue cops. But he’s also not looking to undermine police authority and effectiveness because he doesn’t work from the assumption that the police are inherently bad. That will be a break from the Obama years.”
Police are also hopeful that Sessions will levy fewer “consent decrees” — arrangements between the Justice Department and a city that stipulate new methods police must use to address DOJ investigations into their practices.Consent decrees also involve the placing of federal monitors inside the police departments to ensure compliance.
Law enforcement officials believe that the moves, while well intentioned, lead to bad outcomes. They say the administration’s interest in local law enforcement means police officers go into the field feeling constrained or fearful that their next encounter could make them the target of a civil rights lawsuit.
They point to Seattle as a case study in “over-enforcement” gone wrong. The city has seen an uptick in violent crime in the wake of a DOJ investigation there that produced a massive overhaul in how the city is policed.
The Justice Department concluded its investigation into Seattle’s police department in late 2011. Crime levels spiked in 2013 and have remained above 2012 levels in the years since, according to the Seattle Police Department.
“The question is, have these DOJ practices improved safety in the areas where they’ve gone after the police departments? The answer is no,” said former attorney general Michael Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush.
“There have been something like 20 or 25 different investigations into police departments across the country, usually with unhappy results. You see a place like Seattle, which gets federal oversight and then you see crime go through the roof. It’s an intrusion and in a lot of these instances, the police don’t have the resources or inclination to push back.”
Pasco, the FOP executive director, went further.
“Early on, particularly during Obama’s first four yeas when [now-Labor Secretary] Tom Perez was the assistant attorney general for civil rights, there was a virtual jihad against police departments and practices,” Pasco said.
“They imposed these unreasonable and draconian consent decrees to address real or perceived violations and the quote ‘remedies’ only exacerbated the rift with police. The bottom line is when Justice investigates, it’s supposed to produce a better result or product and improve the situation. Instead it seems to have exacerbated the problems and doomed some of these communities to failure.”
Still, Pasco funneled most of his anger at Perez, who is presently running to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee, rather than the Obama administration as a whole.
Not everyone in law enforcement has such a critical reading of the Obama administration’s legacy. Most are just eager to turn the page and see the relationship between police and the Justice Department start over.
“You can’t in all fairness say that Obama is anti-police,” said Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general under George W. Bush. “If you read his statements, they’re not anti-police. But I do think the department and the administration have been too quick to point an accusatory finger at the police when these incidents have happened. Whether that’s accurate, it’s a perception you have to deal with and I think it will change under Sessions.”