Reading the two-page edict released by Attorney General Jefferson Sessions I had the feeling I was missing something. I scoured the Internet looking for misplaced pages, at first assuming, and then praying that there had been unintentional omissions. Oversights. The directive by the Attorney General ordered the Department of Justice to review all agency activities—e.g., active research grants, investigations, agreements with police departments—with the intent of ensuring they align with this administration’s agenda. But the values that are missing from that agenda represent much of what we have learned works in policing: that we are safer when we 1) value protecting the most vulnerable, 2) work hard to earn trust, 3) measure what’s important, and 3) treat people fairly and with as little coercion as possible. We must wait to see the outcome of the review. But it is not too early to point out these oversights and to insist that our shared values and collective wisdom not become permanent omissions from the work of Justice.
First, where is the Attorney General’s affirmation that DOJ defends civil rights? He notes that, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” Surely, though, protecting those vulnerable to mistreatment is a value central to a Department of Justice’s existence. During the Obama administration that value was reflected in the Civil Rights division opening 25 investigations into law enforcement, 14 of which became consent decrees DOJ will review under the AG’s order.
Importantly, this has never been an “anti-police” value. Several consent decrees mandate interventions to improve office health. Moreover, the best evidence available suggests that consent decrees broaden access to civil liberties and have lasting influence. Protecting civil rights is a job the federal government must do and can do effectively. It is also a value that cannot be overlooked.
Second, where does the Attorney General demonstrate that he understands how trust works? His order states that, “The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform.” I believe he is echoing the old adage that police misconduct is the product of “a few bad apples,” and should not tarnish the profession. But, here, the “bad apples” idiom represents a mind-boggling lack of understanding—both of idiom and of trust.
The full phrase is “a few bad apples spoils the barrel.” Trust works much the same way: individual acts of misconduct damage the legitimacy of whole institutions. Recent research demonstrates that calls for police assistance (e.g., 911 calls) decline sharply after a single public instance of misconduct (e.g., a police beating). And, since there is near scientific consensus that cooperation with the law begins with trust in it and not fear of it, any pro-police agenda cannot omit the value of repairing damaged trust even as it must affirms the honor of most officers.
Next, where is the evidence that this Attorney General knows that measuring “justice” is more than measuring “crime?” His statement affirms that “statistics on crime and criminals” are essential. As a #JusticeNerd and a lead researcher on the National Justice Database, I could not agree more! Still, it is bizarre that the statement focuses on “crime and criminals” to the exclusion of data on police behavior. The FBI director called the lack of police shooting data “embarrassing” and “ridiculous,” and in far worse shape than crime data. If the Attorney General wanted to lump in police behavior with that of criminals, I imagine law enforcement would object (as would I). If he did not think police data are important—well, those same objections apply. Valuing policing means we have to care enough to measure what police do.
Finally, where are the values of fairness and decency? The Attorney General asserts that, “Recruitment and training … should focus on making law enforcement a rewarding career, and attracting and retaining well-qualified personnel.” Who could argue? But the lack of any reference to bias reduction or de-escalation is peculiar, particularly in light of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing’s report that strongly called for trainings to emphasize both. The conviction that public safety is best when applied fairly and without unnecessary coercion is glaringly absent from the administration’s agenda.
The DOJ must not forget these values or the science that supports them because the alternative is dangerous. Voiding consent decrees robs communities of the federal support often vital to making the most difficult—and meaningful—changes. Chiefs who navigate consent decrees report that the process is painful, but that change could not succeed without federal intervention. Further, a federal retreat from communities that protested so ardently could further erode trust in government—the value that most breeds public safety.
When the nation is so divided, it is critical that the federal agency charged with oversight of civil rights corrects the oversights in the Attorney General’s statement. To allow them to stand risks not only compromising our values, but also omitting the decades of lessons that science and experience have taught us—and the justice those lessons made possible.