Department of Injustice

Of all the perverse and destructive appointments Trump has made since taking office, Jeff Sessions to head the Department of Justice may be the worst. Sessions, in my opinion an unreconstructed, ferret-faced racist of the worst sort—the sort with power—demonstrated just how destructive he is yet again yesterday, when his decision not to prosecute the police killers of Alton B.Sterling in Baton Rouge last year was announced. The determination not to file federal charges was made without notifying the Louisiana attorney general, the mayor of Baton Rouge or Mr. Sterling’s family.

The decision follows a newly implemented Sessions policy to back off from federal oversight of law enforcement agencies around the country. Sessions has said that “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” entire departments, and that “[police] morale has suffered.”

In the video on this page, you can see that Mr. Sterling is pushed to the ground by the police and held there as one officer points a gun at his chest before shooting him point-blank.

Last night, around the Triple S Food Mart parking lot in Baton Rouge where Mr. Sterling was killed, people congregated and discussed the federal decision not to prosecute.

“I’m not surprised, because it happens all the time,” said Kosher Weber, 21, her voice cracking in anger. “Where do things go from here? There’s no justice. There’s no nothing.”

Derrick Brody, 45, said: “Over and over again. They kill a human being, and they get away with it, just ’cause they got a blue suit.”

Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, said Mr. Sterling had been “shot in cold blood” and wrote on Twitter, “The DOJ’s decision not to pursue justice is a travesty.”

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. So did a spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Police Department. She also declined to confirm the employment status of the two officers who had been under investigation, referring inquiries to the Justice Department.

This is one more sickening step backward for America.

Stop Police Misconduct

With growing existential dangers abroad and a president ill-equipped to handle them (see Charles Blow’s excellent column in today’s Times), I’m going to direct your attention instead to a long-standing domestic problem: police misconduct. We may not have answers for dealing with North Korea, Syria or Russia at the moment (as I write this, a headline on my phone’s home screen informs me that the Pentagon is developing options for a military strike in Syria), but surely we can address a problem that plagues every American city (and many small towns and rural areas as well). Or at least we can try.

Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Pantaleo was not indicted.
Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Pantaleo was not indicted. Photo: Wikipedia.

When I speak of police “misconduct,” I’m being euphemistic. What I really mean is criminal violence perpetrated by the police, up to and including murder. What I really mean is systemic brutality and racism and a larger culture that encourages and excuses criminal police behavior. What I really mean is a judicial system that kowtows to the police as sacred “public servants,” not to be penalized under any circumstances.

Here I will introduce the obligatory reference to the admirable service that “good” cops provide. “Good” cops risk their lives to help people in need. “Good” cops are altruistic when it counts, doing their utmost to protect people from harm. “Good” cops, unfortunately, are something of a rarity. And even they tend to keep their mouths shut when it comes to criminal behavior by their colleagues on the force.

The cops who “misbehave” are antisocial thugs with lifelong inferiority complexes. Guys too stupid or emotionally immature to handle college but who want to earn a decent living anyway. Guys who hunger for respect and deference, which were in short supply as they were growing up. Guys who perhaps couldn’t cut the armed forces but managed to find a haven in a local police force. Guys who, if they sense even a hint of disrespect, will make you pay for it. Sometimes with your life, especially if you’re black.

You’ve all met these people, I’ll wager more than once.

So when Attorney General Jeff Sessions (I hate granting Sessions that title, since he is so blatantly unqualified for his job) attempts to roll back efforts to reform police departments around the country, it’s cause for great concern.

Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III is, in my view, an unreconstructed Southern bigot. It shows in his weaselly face—you can easily imagine spotting him in a photograph, standing in the front row at an old-fashioned lynching party in a Southern town square back in the fifties. No matter how many niceties and courtesies he tries to layer on top, his essential character still shines through.

We need to rally around the police reformers. They have two important jobs to do. The first is to get rid of the obvious “bad actors” on their forces. The second is to change their recruiting practices to avoid replacing current bad actors with new ones. If policing really is such a hallowed profession, then maybe it should be treated more like one: increase the requirements (educational, professional, personal) for joining the department, and increase the rewards proportionately.

The mindset that cops can do no wrong has got to go. So does Jeff Sessions.

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.