The Department of Justice’s highest-ranking official—a proud, lifelong white supremacist—has the power to criminalize and imprison Black people. And he is using it to the fullest extent.
It’s easy to forget, in light of all the other godawful things AG Jefferson Beauregard Sessions has done of late—ceaseless lying about his Russian connections, kicking LGBT employees in the teeth, going after a woman who had the temerity to laugh during his confirmation hearing—that what he really is, more than anything else, is deeply and unrelentingly racist.
He wants to restart the war on drugs, which disproportionately harms people of color. He quickly undid Obama’s ban on further use of private prisons, because private prisons are money makers that can be filled with poor people of color swept up in his drug war. He’s desperately trying to withhold law enforcement money from sanctuary cities. In what was probably one of the highlights of his dismal and evil life, he got to giddily announce the end of DACA, even though the DOJ actually isn’t the agency that creates or ends or enforces DACA.
With Sessions’s deep commitment to white supremacy, it isn’t at all surprising that the DOJ decided not to prosecute the cops that gave Freddie Gray a “rough ride”—where police place a person in a police wagon, leave them shackled but with no seatbelt, and then proceed to drive recklessly and stop abruptly so they are slammed around the wagon—and ignored his pleas for medical attention, leading to Gray’s death.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby braved public opprobrium to bring criminal charges against the six officers that had a role in Gray’s death. She failed to secure convictions, but it honestly wasn’t for lack of trying.
The Department of Justice has the power to investigate whether federal criminal charges can be brought against police officers, even in cases where the officers have been acquitted (or not even charged) at the state level. When he was president, Obama made criminal justice reform—including investigating police brutality cases—a key component of his presidency. Indeed, when Freddie Gray was killed, Obama didn’t just have the DOJ open an investigation, he spoke out, saying that the killing of Freddie Gray was “not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.” And he didn’t stop there. He detailed his other extensive efforts to reform policing in America, all of which involved forging better relationships between communities and police.
The President is also working with police departments and community leaders to implement recommendations from his Task Force on 21st Century Policing to help build trust between communities and law enforcement while maintaining public safety. From adopting new technologies to build trust to prioritizing de-escalation and avoiding provocative tactics to enhancing officer safety and wellness, these recommendations can begin to build a culture of trust that is needed to promote safety and justice in every community and for every individual, no matter who they are.
Imagine the Trump administration making any of these commitments to communities harmed by police in situations that always, always escalate. It would never happen because Trump, like Sessions, is a devoted white supremacist. Trump has also made clear, if you recall, that he has no problems telling police to rough people up more during arrests.
Sessions’ dedication to white supremacy, his remaking of the DOJ in his own image, means that we will see the DOJ going to impossible lengths to avoid bringing charges against the officers in Gray’s case. The letter explaining the decision not to prosecute provides an entirely new, and functionally unsupported, way of deciding whether to charge the police: if the police won’t just come out and confess, you can’t possibly prosecute them. As to whether Gray received a rough ride? The DOJ letter says “Goodson [the driver] provided no statement to investigators that would illuminate how he operated the wagon,” and presents that statement in a way that makes it equivalent to people who actually chose to participate in the investigation or the evidence obtained from Gray’s autopsy. In other words, the DOJ now seems to think that when a police officer refuses to explain his actions or motivations, that isn’t cause for suspicion or further investigation.
The DOJ also highlights the fact that none of the officers knew that transporting someone without a seatbelt would cause them harm, even though Baltimore was already notorious for giving prisoners rough rides and had paid out several million dollars to past victims who ended up paralyzed.
In the letter, it is also clear that the DOJ gives merit to the all-too-common police belief that you shouldn’t get medical assistance for people you’ve arrested and brutalized, because they might be faking it:
The Department is mindful of the fact that Gray asked for medical assistance and appeared lethargic at Stops 4 and 5, however, the evidence does not disprove Porter’s statement that he delayed Gray’s requests for a medic because he believed Gray was fatigued after banging himself against the wagon and might have been feigning injury.
So here’s where we are: a police officer’s word is golden, and his refusal to speak is also golden.
After Freddie Gray’s death, Obama’s DOJ issued a report about the Baltimore Police Department. It found that the BPD routinely violated federal law and the constitution. They made unconstitutional stops and searches, used strategies to unfairly target African-Americans, and used excessive force. Because of that, Obama’s Department of Justice sought to enter into a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department. A consent decree is when the DOJ and police departments or cities enter into a court-enforceable contract where the police department promises to make certain reforms. (Ferguson, for instance, is under a consent decree and obliged to reform their biased municipal court system, establish a civilian review board, and implement body-worn and car cameras, among other things).
Even police aren’t always opposed to the steps outlined in these consent decrees. The International Association of Chiefs of Police and 10 other police organizations recently released a document affirming the necessity for de-escalation. Portland’s police department has spent years increasing training to help officers deal with individuals with mental illness in a peaceful fashion instead of resorting to force. Police also pushed back against Trump’s comments this past summer encouraging police to rough people up more when they arrest them.
In light of all this, it wouldn’t be unexpected to see the DOJ and Baltimore happy to move forward on bettering Baltimore’s police department. However, the negotiations over the consent decree stretched into the new administration. Sessions’ DOJ, rather than embracing the chance to formalize an agreement with Baltimore that could result in real reforms, such as more training on de-escalation and more officer supervision, asked for a delay in implementation so that they could assess the agreement. The judge overseeing the consent decree denied the request, but Jeff Sessions couldn’t resist taking one last shot:
Sessions said in a statement Friday that he supports reform but has “grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.”
Yes, the DOJ believes that if you require more training of police, they will not be able to do their job. This is a terrifying stance from anyone, but especially from the agency charged with overseeing police departments that persistently violate the civil rights of people, especially people of color.
Sessions has made clear he’d be happy to toss existing consent decrees out because they can “reduce the morale of police officers.” He also said that if you have a consent decree in place, crime grows dramatically, which is simply not true.
Requiring more training of police in Ferguson, requiring Baltimore police to learn to de-escalate rather than resorting to force—these are the things Jeff Sessions sees as an impediment to policing. He’d rather have police departments that routinely violate the civil rights of people of color, up to and including killing them, have unfettered discretion.
For Sessions, this unfettered discretion is a feature, not a bug. He gets to use police departments to actively oppress and harm people of color. He now likely has more resources at his disposal than anyone else in the country that he could bring to bear against oppression and in favor of reform. But he’s not going to do that. He’s going to use those resources to perpetuate white supremacism and state-sanctioned violence. Sessions has been committed to this path his whole life. This is just the latest iteration.
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