Attorney General Jeff Sessions is attempting to shake up policing in the country by limiting federal oversight of police departments with a history of civil rights violations, while calling for an escalation of the war on drugs. Last week, Sessions ordered a wide-ranging review of the federal consent decrees with local law enforcement agencies that have been accused of brutality and violating civil rights laws. The review signals the Justice Department intends to shift away from monitoring and forcing changes within police departments, such as the police department of Ferguson, Missouri, where systematic racial discrimination by the police and the police killing of unarmed 18-year-old African American Michael Brown sparked an uprising in 2014. This comes as Sessions is also calling for what many see as a new war on drugs. We speak with Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at how Attorney General Jeff Sessions is attempting to shake up policing in the country by limiting federal oversight of police departments with a history of civil rights violations, while calling for an escalation of the war on drugs. Last week, Sessions ordered a wide-ranging review of the federal government—of the federal consent decrees with local law enforcement agencies that have been accused of brutality and violating civil rights laws. The review signals the Justice Department intends to shift away from monitoring and forcing changes within police departments, such as the police department of Ferguson, Missouri, where systematic racial discrimination by the police and the police killing of unarmed 18-year-old African American Michael Brown sparked an uprising in 2014.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes after Attorney General Jeff Sessions openly expressed concerns about efforts at police reform in a recent speech.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Unfortunately, in recent years, law enforcement, as a whole, I think, has been unfairly maligned and blamed for unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors. You’ve got some 800,000 state and local law officers and federal officers in America. Imagine a city of 800,000. Are you not going to have people make mistakes, people who commit crimes out of that group? And so, we’re not perfect. We all know that. Department of Justice is going to fulfill its role to ensure that law enforcement officers are not out of control. And if they violate the law, they will be punished. But we’ve got to be careful about what we’re doing. We cannot malign entire departments. Too many of our officers, deputies and troopers believe the political leadership in this country has abandoned them. …
I like that line from Pirates of Penzance, I think, Gilbert and Stewart [sic] old line, says, “When constabulary duties are to be done, to be done, the policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” You know? It’s no fun to go out and hammer somebody and see him go to jail. Nobody likes to do that. But it’s our duty. It’s our lot.
AMY GOODMAN: During the same speech in Richmond, Virginia, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for what many see as a new war on drugs.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: We need to say, as Nancy Reagan said, “Just say no.” Don’t do it. … And our nation needs to say clearly, once again, that using drugs is bad. It will destroy your life. In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw campaigns stressing prevention. … We can do this again. Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices by more people. We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug use.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests: Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Norm Stamper, former chief of the Seattle Police Department and the author of the book To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sherrilyn, let’s begin with you. Is this a new war on drugs? And can you talk about the judge’s decision?
SHERRILYN IFILL: Well, what we see with Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an effort to basically take us back in time. And you heard, you know, in the clip that you just posted, I mean, he talks about Nancy Reagan. I mean, this is a person who’s stuck in the '80s, and in some instances, stuck in the ’50s. And so, it's not just about the war on drugs. It’s a kind of a retro view of law enforcement and policing in which he’s attempting to wipe out the last 30 years of progress in this country, to the extent that it’s been made—the last four years, in particular, where we’ve really been focused on the issue of policing reform. And you talked about Ferguson and the uprising and what’s happened. This intense look at unconstitutional policing, this is what Jeff Sessions doesn’t want to deal with. He talks about a few bad apples. He’s not interested in looking at issues of systemic problems in the police department.
But, you know, the statute that governs these investigations and consent decrees, like in Baltimore, is called the Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute, 42 U.S.C. 14141. It was enacted actually as part of the 1994 crime bill as a result of the Rodney King assault and the acquittal of those officers in the first trial. That’s a statute that authorizes the attorney general to investigate unconstitutional policing, to engage in these consent decrees. So, to the extent that he’s a law-and-order attorney general, this is a law he’s willing to completely ignore.
In Baltimore, what he’s attempted to do is essentially to undermine a consent decree that had been entered in January, had been negotiated over the course of six months by the city of Baltimore and by the Department of Justice. As soon as he came into office, Jeff Sessions immediately tried to begin slow walking approval of the consent decree. Even up to last week, the day before there was to be a public hearing, when the community was to come before the federal judge and explain to him what they wanted to see in the consent decree, Jeff Sessions filed a motion asking for a 90-day extension for the judge to review the decree. The judge approved the decree. And even then, Jeff Sessions released a statement essentially criticizing the decree, saying he thinks it will make people in Baltimore less safe.
We tried to intervene in the case, because we believe the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions has no intention of fully enforcing the decree. The judge did not allow us to intervene, basically said it’s too early, that he assumes that the Department of Justice will enforce the decree. I hope he’s right. I think we have enough reason to believe that Jeff Sessions has no intention of actually enforcing the consent decree that really will bring about transformative policing in Baltimore City. People in Baltimore have been waiting for this for years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I don’t think I’ve ever seen, certainly not in my memory and in the memory of most people, such a complete about-face of a federal—
SHERRILYN IFILL: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of a federal institution versus what the policy was in December and November of last year to what it is now, and the impact on so many of these cities, that already have these decrees, in terms of the fact that the Justice Department has a responsibility to enforce them. I’m wondering what you’re thinking what’s going to happen?
SHERRILYN IFILL: It’s actually quite astonishing. I mean, he ordered this review of 14 consent decrees. So we’re talking about Ferguson. We’re talking about Cleveland. We’re talking about places all over the country, in which police departments themselves have gotten on board with the idea of transformation. You know, when I met with Jeff Sessions—and I met with him—I said to him, “Do you actually talk to local police? Because the chief of police in Baltimore will tell you out of his mouth he wants the consent decree.” Even the head of the FOP said at their most recent labor summit in Las Vegas—
AMY GOODMAN: The Fraternal Order of Police.
SHERRILYN IFILL: The Fraternal Order of Police—said consent decrees bring resources to police departments. If you talk to police chiefs—we work with the International Association of Chiefs of Police—they know that this is a moment when reform has to happen, that there does have to be 21st century policing. And so, I questioned Jeff Sessions, “I understand you have your own views, but do you talk to police?” The man who was just confirmed as Jeff Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein—he’s the former U.S. attorney from Baltimore—just a week before I met with Attorney General Sessions, had indicted seven Baltimore police officers for racketeering from the elite gun unit—police officers who were shaking down residents of the community. I told this to Jeff Sessions. He’s got his own worldview. And he came in with that worldview, and no fact is going to shake that view.
AMY GOODMAN: What did Sessions say to you? What did he respond?
SHERRILYN IFILL: Well, so, besides calling me articulate, he essentially said, “Well, maybe Baltimore has some problems.” But as you can see, it had no effect on him, because he’s come forward with an effort to try to scuttle the decree.