Jeff Sessions, officers must serve Constitution over upbringing and culture
Developments in three major cases involving police shootings this week have left some folks shocked, others angry.
On Tuesday, a former South Carolina cop who fatally shot Walter Scott pleaded guilty to civil rights charges (two years after the fatal encounter). A day later, the Department of Justice announced that it will not charge the Louisiana officers who last year shot and killed Alton Sterling, an unarmed [I stand corrected. He had a firearm] black man who was selling CDs in a parking lot. And a Texas cop was fired after fatally shooting a black 15-year-old boy; the officer has not been charged.
I was raised in an era when the killing of blacks by police was not only tolerated by the public, but also justified. Cops beat civil rights protesters and hanged blacks, some of whom had been fairly tried, others hadn’t. It happened more often than was publicly announced, and the victims of such violence were often left with little to no recourse.
Race relations have improved. But the treatment of blacks at the hands of police sometimes feels like a throwback to that bygone era.
Follow the Constitution
We have a choice to make: We can continue to allow too many cops to get away with abusing their power, or we can finally follow through on the Constitution’s promise to treat all citizens equally and institute laws that allow for much swifter justice than what exists today.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and I grew up in the same era of overwhelmingly biased policing, but his pro-cop edicts show he must move further beyond it. When I was growing up, I was determined to become a cop who changed the system.
As a young man, I watched violent police resistance as desegregation unfolded in Alabama, the state where Sessions served as a U.S. attorney from 1981 to 1993. He also represented that state as a senator for 20 years. He was raised and educated there and now serves as our nation’s top lawyer. He is against federal oversight of states or cities that have a pattern of abusing the constitutional rights of citizens. He says such interventions demoralize our police.
I say they are necessary because most police departments have not been able to engage in self-regulation or continuous improvement.
I remember the shadow of Jim Crow in our nation’s system of criminal justice. As a police chief, I saw too many officers serve their upbringing and culture over our Constitution. I remember George Wallace, Sessions’ governor in 1963, blocking the entrance to a school to prevent two black students from entering. I remember the governor’s vitriol: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
When we don’t ensure the rights of African Americans, we act contrary to our Constitution and we fracture the law and what it means to be an American.
Policing in the modern era
The issue today is no longer about Jim Crow or local laws that prevent black citizens from getting a quality education or voting in an election. Today, the fight is about people’s right to be safe in their persons and to be free from false imprisonment, illegal searches or unreasonable use of force by law enforcement officers.
Sessions and I both took oaths (him as a lawyer and me as a police officer) to defend our Constitution. We both know that justice is meant to be blind and fair. We have both seen and experienced five decades of our nation’s civil rights history.
After the report released by President Johnson’s 1965 Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, some young cops like me took the recommendations to be our marching orders. We read the guidance to improve police-community relations and carried it forward into today’s concept of community-oriented policing. We diversified our departments. We pressed for more college educated cops. We knew that we could do better, that we could be champions of our Constitution and could ensure the fair treatment of all Americans regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, or national origin.
That commission showed us that the best way to police a democracy involves accountability, oversight and respectful fair treatment of those in our society who have not been respectfully and fairly treated in the past. I’m forced to wonder whether Sessions learned the same things from that commission report.
Consent decrees are critical
If we ignore the cries of those who have been victims of police misconduct, and the Justice Department does not intervene on their behalf, police will never build the trust and support of the public, which is needed for cops to lawfully and effectively do their jobs. If the federal government had not intervened in states’ matters when murders of civil rights workers went unsolved, blacks were prevented from registering to vote, and the so-called separate-but-equal doctrine prevented them from getting a decent public education, where would our society be today?
Consent decrees are the best way to help a lagging police department improve. Mayors and police chiefs come and go, but the federal court remains to oversee progress. That is the job of leadership. Sessions’ decision to roll back consent decrees proves that leadership, in this DOJ, is lacking.
More than a dozen consent decrees have been implemented. Overall, it is safe to say progress is slow, but it’s being made.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, lobbied President Trump to overturn the Justice Department’s use of consent decrees. The union says decrees undermine police authority and are unnecessary. They don’t, and they aren’t.
Since Ferguson, many of our nation’s police chiefs are either hesitant, unwilling or unable to rebuild the trust that has been lost by racial misconduct in their departments. They are pressed by both politics and activist union members. Consent decrees are the best tools to encourage and help police improve and rebuild trust.
We must keep this improvement tool until the time it is no longer needed. That time is certainly not today when too many Americans are unable to exercise their “inalienable” rights guaranteed to them by their Constitution. We all have the right not to be harmed because of improper police conduct.
Two boys grew up in two regions of America, one became our nation’s top cop, the other a retired police chief. For both men, one document holds authority regardless of how they were raised, the attitudes about race they acquired, or the privileges they received simply by being white and male in America. It is now time to make sure the advantages both Jeff Sessions and I acquired are available to everyone.
In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors. To read more columns, go to the Opinion front page, follow us on Twitter @USATOpinion and sign up for our daily Opinion newsletter. From: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/policing/spotlight/2017/05/04/sessions-police-sterling-walter-scott/101293698/