Jeff Sessions Is Trump’s Nominee to Head the DOJ. Is Police Reform Doomed?

Trump’s DOJ could halt federal efforts to reform police departments, but activists vow to continue the fight at the local level.

BY Adeshina Emmanuel

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“I would hope the folks who have been activists around police reform, who have built an important and effective movement, will see this as a moment where that movement needs to get bigger,” says Smith.

It’s official: President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Senator Jeff Sessions (R – AL), a longtime ally, to become his attorney general. Sessions is known as an immigration hard-liner with an alleged history of racist remarks and actions, sparking fears that his confirmation could mean major changes at the Department of Justice (DOJ)—especially as it relates to communities of color.

As the nation’s top law enforcement agency, the DOJ oversees other federal agencies like the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It is also tasked with addressing public safety threats and enforcing federal laws, including those concerning civil rights. A DOJ led by Sessions might well drop legal challenges to the state-level voter ID laws that opponents say disenfranchise poor and minority voters, or permit widening police surveillance of Muslim communities. The DOJ also reviews many of the internal policies related to drone and surveillance programs, and President Trump could also alter those rules, as Foreign Policy reported.

Upholding civil rights and defending minority communities have generally been regarded as priorities under current AG Loretta Lynch and her predecessor Eric Holder, the second and first black attorney generals in U.S. history, respectively. Sessions’ record on these issues is deeply concerning to critics. In 1986, his nomination for a federal judgeship was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee, in large part because of allegations that surfaced during his confirmation hearing. Former colleagues said that Sessions had referred to civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and N.A.A.C.P. as “Communist-inspired” and “un-American,” as well as joking that the Klu Klux Klan was “okay … until I found out they smoked pot.” The year before his failed confirmation, Sessions also led a failed prosecution of civil rights workers registering black voters in the South, accusing them of voter fraud in a case that was thrown out, as the New Republic reported.

One of the first changes the new DOJ may make is a dramatic reduction in the federal government's role in overseeing local police agencies. In the wake of high-profile police killings, Barack Obama’s administration has relied heavily on a 1994 law that allows the DOJ to investigate potential civil rights violations at local police departments. If the DOJ documents a “pattern or practice” of such violations, the federal government can compel cities to reform with the threat of litigation. Under Obama, the DOJ has initiated investigations in Baltimore, Chicago and 21 other cities. The department has reached court-monitored agreements, known as consent decrees, with 11 local departments—more than under any other administration. From the first day of Trump’s administration, he and his attorney general could influence whether the DOJ continues launching such investigations and how thoroughly it implements them.

What does this mean for cities like Chicago and Baltimore, where federal efforts to reform police departments are ongoing? The DOJ civil rights division could not immediately be reached for comment. But Jonathan Smith, a former top official, tells In These Times that regardless of who was coming in under the new administration, DOJ officials would be likely to finish their probes this year. “It is not the kind of thing they would leave undone,” he says. But he also believes there’s a real danger that under a Trump DOJ, the resulting reform agreements will lack teeth.

Trump’s statements to police unions and law enforcement organizations, which often bristle at federal oversight, give further credence to this concern. Trump was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the biggest police union in the country, and won support from similar groups following rebukes of Black Lives Matter protestors and calls for an end to “the war on our police.”

In August, the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a questionnaire asking presidential candidates about their policy positions. One question asked, “How would you respond to an incident involving law enforcement, such as a police-involved shooting or use-of-force incident that has gained national attention?” Trump’s responded, “National attention does not mean national involvement of the federal government…local issues should remain local.” He reiterated similar positions in a questionnaire from the FOP that Hillary Clinton reportedly declined to fill out.

Union leadership isn't universal in its support of Trump. Sean Smoot, director and chief legal counsel for the Police Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois, says he didn't vote for the president-elect, though he supports comments from Trump about people needing to show cops more respect. Smoot said he doesn't back other statements Trump has made suggesting that stop-and-frisk is a solution to curb crime given questions about its constitutionality and real impact on crime rates, and he doesn't see the policing strategy as an effective piece of the police reform puzzle going forward. ​

It's important to note that many advocates for police reform question whether federal reform efforts were getting the job done in the first place. Clout-heavy police unions have often been able to impede federal efforts, particularly when collective bargaining agreements contradict proposed civil rights reforms. Though the DOJ has the might of the federal government behind it, it has tended to avoid clashes with unions rather than wade into potentially lengthy and costly legal battles.

Samantha Master, a Baltimore-area organizer with the Black Youth Project 100, says that the movement has never put much faith in federal authorities. “We have never relied on DOJ intervention to actualize our demands for black liberation,” she notes. “We see the DOJ as an entity that has a certain amount of power and authority to do things like demilitarize the police … [and] rescind the Safe Cops program, which has never done a good job of keeping our people safe. So the DOJ will remain a target, but they have never been central to our strategy or how we organize.”

Smith notes that activists, attorneys and advocates can still pressure local police departments and elected officials to implement changes that address police misconduct.

“I would hope the folks who have been activists around police reform, who have built an important and effective movement, will see this as a moment where that movement needs to get bigger,” he says.

Activists concur, but not just because of the potential shifts in the DOJ. Master notes that Trump’s presidency has emboldened proponents of white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and anti-Muslim sentiments in the U.S. She says that means activists from marginalized groups have to change their approach, bolster their bases and collaborate more with one another.

“Trump’s regime … doesn’t stop our work,” she says. “It makes it more pressing.”

Likewise, while Chicago is still waiting for the outcome of a DOJ investigation, Ed Yohnka of the ACLU of Illinois acknowledges, “We can expect that police reform in Chicago is going to come through local advocacy and local solutions.”

“This is really going to be about the community coming together to demand accountability and transparency from CPD,” he says. “That was always going to be an element of whatever happened, but I think that’s really going to be the main thrust of what reform looks like going forward.”

Adeshina Emmanuel is an independent Chicago-based journalist and an Ida B. Wells Fellow with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. He is a former reporter for DNAinfo Chicago, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Reporter.

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