Revisiting Police Misconduct: Trump, Sessions, and Derailed Reform

Image by Audrie Francis

In light of the election of the Trump Administration and the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, questions have surfaced regarding the future of investigations and subsequent actions regarding police misconduct and racial profiling of Black Americans.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, a young Black teenager, was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson, sparking a renewed national movement aimed at combating the systemic discrimination that runs rampant in our society and police forces. Five years later and the list of black victims to police shootings piles on without a clear end in sight. Since this incident, coverage of similar shootings has exposed the issue and caused a commotion of controversy amongst the public and our political officials. Victims like Sandra BlandAlton SterlingTamir Rice, most recently Jordan Edwards, and their tragic ends have brought to light the police misconduct, excessive force, and racial profiling exercised by police.

Unfortunately for many Black Americans, this is a reality many live in fear of on a daily basis. Statistics on police shootings in 2015 reveal that 40 percent of unarmed people shot by police were Black men, when Black men make up only 6 percent of the population. Critics of police reform often argue that these statistics just show how Black Americans are more likely to commit a violent crime.

This narrative of Black people being a violent community is common in justifying the killing and incarceration of many Black Americans. A study on the role of racial stereotypes stated: “A combination of negative media depictions of African‐Americans, historical stereotypes, and ethnocentric biases are likely combined to form distorted perceptions in which the association of blackness and criminality is systematically overestimated.”

Studies like these fall onto deaf ears when police departments and officers use racial profiling and stereotypes as tactics to find and pursue suspects. It is this kind of attitude that some police officers carry that sets up precedence for the reform of police departments.

So the question remains: How much progress have we made since these shootings came under increased investigation?

In the last few years, the implementation of body cameras has significantly diminished the number of complaints against police officers, reducing conflict during interactions between the public and police. The New York Police Department recently rolled out a large-scale implementation of the body camera program, which is set to equip more than 20,000 police officers with body cameras by 2019 under the pretense of ensuring transparency and accountability within the police department.

On Friday, January 13, 2017, the Justice Department announced that its investigation into the Chicago Police Department revealed that there were severe violations of the public’s civil rights. According to the DOJ, “the pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies in training and accountability, including the failure to train officers in de-escalation and the failure to conduct meaningful investigations of uses of force.”

However, with the new presidential administration’s opinion on police accountability and the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ views of these police department investigations, these few steps towards progress may once again be impeded. NPR reported on a Senate hearing from January 10, 2017, where Jeff Sessions said that there is cause for concern where “good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department who have done wrong, and those individuals need to be prosecuted.” His disagreement resonates with the overarching argument against the scrutiny police are being put under — that these investigations are punishing entire police departments for the actions of a few “bad cops” in the police force. This “bad apple” narrative is prevalent among dissenters of the police accountability undertaking.

As for the effectiveness of these countermeasures to police misconduct, there have been several reports of police turning off, or refusing to admit all the video footage of the altercation in question, resulting in an obstruction of investigations.

Recently, Jeff Sessions has also ordered a review of the Justice Department’s current police reform activities, including consent decrees, one of the DOJ’s biggest tools for police reform. Sessions once called these consent decrees “one of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees.” This review could potentially derail months of the Justice Department’s work and effort into police reform, especially for cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson, and Cleveland, which have suffered some of most explicit violations of civil rights due to police misconduct.

The Black Lives Matter Movement has certainly done its part in bringing attention and awareness to this issue, permanently placing the Black community’s grievances on the map. DeRay Mckesson, a prominent Black Lives Matter member and activist, stated in an interview that Trump’s view that racism is “not a thing” translated into policy and practice has “the potential to have dire consequences for people of color.” As a result of the attitude of the newly elected president, this movement also launched a new campaign to re-focus efforts on state legislation and state capitals in an effort to combat Trump’s actions against police reform and immigration.

Stories like that of Jordan Edwards occur too frequently occurring in this nation, and with the questionable actions of the presidential administration increasing tensions in our political climate, stories such as these will continue to occur. It is important to note that these shootings still take place every day, and we must not forget their relevance.

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