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Department of Justice's New Respect for Local Law Enforcement

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently released a memorandum demonstrating respect for, and understanding of, the unique role law enforcement officers play in society. It is a welcome change from the policies of his predecessor.

After years of the federal government micro-managing state and local law enforcement, Attorney General Sessions has directed the Department of Justice to strengthen DOJ’s relationships with state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners. This could not come at a more important time.

The previous administration’s response to these attacks was to comment without facts; assume that officers were acting unreasonably, particularly in the use of deadly force; and to support publicly groups that call for violence against police officers. This has led to an increasing presumption in some quarters that law enforcement officers cannot be trusted, and that their actions are usually unlawful. This insidious perspective has had real consequences, as the data from 2016 make clear.

In 2016 law enforcement officers were subject to unprecedented attack, physically and culturally. Last year 21 officers were murdered in ambush-style killings, the highest number in more than 20 years. As absurd as it is to have to explain that yes, law enforcement is under attack even if these are not the highest numbers ever, the attacks are real, and officers died.

Culturally, groups that have gained the ear of the liberal media have castigated law enforcement, seeking to disrupt and delegitimize valid law enforcement operations by presenting all law enforcement officers as explicitly or implicitly biased. The goal of these groups, exaggerating their message in the echo chamber of social media, is to deter law enforcement from taking appropriate action on the job.

These attacks create the “Ferguson Effect” in which officers back off out of concern that they’ll unfairly be labelled the wrongdoer. In a 2016 national survey of sworn law enforcement officers by the Pew Research Center, 72 percent say that officers have become less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious, and 76 percent say that officers are more reluctant to use force when it is appropriate.

In light of this, it is no coincidence that in 2016, the murder rate for the nation’s 30 largest cities rose by 14%, with several cities reporting decades-high numbers. These attacks on law enforcement make everyone less safe.

Attorney General Sessions’ memo acknowledges the importance of local law enforcement and the federal government’s proper relationship with it. He directs the Department of Justice to use its resources to advance two goals: “effectively promote a peaceful and lawful society, where the civil rights of all persons are valued and protected.”

To do so, all Department components must support the following principles:

  • The safety and protection of the public is the paramount concern and duty of law enforcement officials.

  • Law enforcement officers perform uniquely dangerous tasks, and the Department should help promote officer safety, officer morale, and public respect for their work.

  • Local law enforcement must protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the public.

  • Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.

  • The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe.

  • The collection and analysis of timely, reliable statistics on crime and criminals are essential for effective law enforcement strategies.

  • Recruitment and training of law enforcement officers should focus on making law enforcement a rewarding career, and attracting and retaining well-qualified personnel.

  • Collaboration between federal and local law enforcement is important, and jurisdictions whose law enforcement agencies accept funding from the Department are expected to adhere to the Department’s grant conditions as well as to all federal laws.

If the Department of Justice acknowledges and respects these principles, it will be a useful step in correcting the gross and dangerous imbalances of the past several years. This will help increase the safety of our communities.

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