It is Police Who Protect Our Civil Rights

Jeff Sessions, officers must serve Constitution over upbringing and culture

By David C. Couper

May 4, 2017 — USA Today


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!”

 Sessions was a teenager when that happened. I know what I felt when I saw Wallace’s racist behavior. Was Sessions as outraged as I was? Was he as determined as I was to be the kind of law enforcement officer who would stand up and protect the rights of those children? After all, wouldn’t an “originalist” interpretation of our Constitution agree that the Bill of Rights applies to everyone?

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/

7 Comments

  1. I just can’t quite figure you out. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt that your intent is to improve policing like your blog title implies. But then you write things like this, “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 black man who was selling CDs in a parking lot.” i am then left believing that your intent is to defame police officers, and like the mass media, your not against straight up lying or bending the facts to prove your point that officers are racist. Alton Sterling threatened a citizen with a firearm, failed to comply with lawful orders when police arrived to the call about an armed suspect and then was reaching for a firearm in his pocket. A firearm that was recovered from his pocket. What part of that is “unarmed” and the fact that he sells CD’s on the street is irrelevant to the use of force against an armed felon who was failing to comply.. If you believe the officers handled that situation poorly then say it, but don’t make up facts that aren’t true. It destroys your credibility.

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    1. I was trying to list a number of events that impact police. I am not making a judgment on the Sterling case. Police need to know what’s happening and see it widely. I served and led for over three decades. I want police to be smart, safe, well-trained and led — that’s where I’m coming from!

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    2. I thought I replied to this, I want to say that I erred in saying Alton Sterling was unarmed and corrected by blog and the USA Today article. After his arrest and shooting a gun was found on him according to federal investigators. My point in all this is that we must be able to enter into a conversation with the community that we could have done better. Could the approach to Sterling have been improved if they had to do it again? How about the other high-profile shootings? Can we learn from these? Thanks, Captain, for pointing this out to me.

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  2. Alton Sterling, an unarmed black man who was selling CDs in a parking lot? Come on Chief this is flat out propaganda steeped in a false narrative! I read your blog in order to have a world view on policing issues but you lost me with that one. Your explanation states that you were listing a number of events that impact police and the Sterling case certainly does. However, the impact was more in line with the false narrative that you re-quoted than any one thing the officers actions created in that moment. A false narrative will always cloud the view of both sides of the aisle and create a circle the wagons mentality rather than a need to take a serious look at what we do and make needed changes mentality. I can’t fathom that you or any other Chief would stand in front of their officers, quote that false narrative, and expect / receive their willingness to follow you down this path. Your point about the past wrong doings by our profession should be enough to gain the attention of your intended audience nullifying the need to use a false narrative. “A leader without followers is simply out for a walk.”

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    1. I stand corrected and apologize on the Sterling incident portrayal. He was armed — but that was revealed only after the fact. But I have to say that I would expect a professional police leader to make inquiry in each of these incidents and others as well) as to whether the handling of these incidents might have been done better? Could the approach and resolution be improved? That’s what a leader does and he or she can still be followed because it’s the right thing to do. And as for my opinions on these use of force matters — t’s what experience has taught me.

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