License to Kill

Jeff Sessions, the unreconstructed right-wing Senator from Alabama with a seriously spotty civil rights record who has managed to become the U. S. Attorney General, announced yesterday that he will be “pulling back” on federal monitoring of police violence and civil rights violations. He said that such monitoring was “undermining” police effectiveness, by generating a lack of respect for the police and making their jobs more difficult.

In light of the conspicuous killings of unarmed people by the police captured on video in recent years, Sessions’s action is a gigantic step backwards. The action was not unexpected, however. Sessions had already gone on record as questioning Justice Department reports on policing in Chicago and Ferguson, MO, among other places. David Cole, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union who testified in the Senate against Mr. Sessions’s nomination, said that “thus far, all signs are that Sessions is playing to type.”

Autopsy drawing of Laquan McDonald
An autopsy drawing of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times, including several times in the back. Cook County Medical Examiner.

In Chicago, where the police were found to maintain their own interrogation “black site,” and where a white police officer shot a black teenager (who was armed with a small pocket knife and walking away from the police) 16 times, law professor Craig Futterman said the city “lacks a combination of will and the ability … to address those civil rights violations on their own.”

And it’s not just Chicago. Across the United States, whenever a police officer goes on trial for murder (this charge is rare) or manslaughter, the result is inevitably acquittal. Cops are venerated by much of the country and deified on the right; they can do no wrong. As soon as Black Lives Matter arose in response to numerous documented police killings of unarmed black people, it was swiftly countered with “Blue Lives Matter” and then “All Lives Matter.” And Black Lives Matter was widely blamed for harming police morale.

The lack of police accountability is harmful, even dangerous. Policing is an occupation that attracts more than its fair share of sociopaths and every department of any size is going to have cops who relish inflicting violence on the defenseless. The automatic acquittals whenever police officers do go on trial foster an air of immunity. Sessions’s withdrawal of federal oversight is only going to make matters worse.

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