William Barr
Credit: FOX 10 Phoenix/YouTube Screen Capture

I was recently reminded that the motto on most police vehicles reads: “To protect and to serve.” That is obviously not how the U.S. Attorney General sees his job. Here is how he characterized the role of law enforcement during a speech he gave last week at the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police’s 64th National Biennial Conference.

[L]aw enforcement is fighting a different type of war.  We are fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society.

To the extent that police officers are fighting a war, it is one they are waging against the people they are meant to “protect and serve.” That is exactly the kind of analogy that leads to the abuse of power and mass incarceration. It stems from an embrace of what we often refer to as a “culture war.” William Barr is knee-deep in viewing the world through that lens.

We live in an age now when the institutions we have relied on to inculcate values and self-restraint have been under constant assault for over 50 years.  As a result, we see about us increased social pathology:  boys growing up without fathers; alienated and angry young men; gangs engaged in the most brutal violence; mass shootings; increasing mental illness and suicide among young people; a drug epidemic inflicting casualties beyond what we would sustain in a major war; growing domestic violence; an increase in sexual assaults and child exploitation.

That is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s inaugural address where he talked about “American carnage.” The problem is that, other than the reference to mass shootings and the opioid crisis, most of it is simply not true. The facts are that, when it comes to teenagers, they are doing better on almost every front than previous generations.

The suggestion that the institutions that taught values are under assault, leading to a kind of social pathology, is the essence of the politics of resentment embraced by nostalgia voters, who pine for the better days of the past. You’ll find no better example of how that relates to law enforcement than this clip of Trump’s remarks about the “good old days.”

YouTube video

Barr went on to dismiss the concerns about police violence against people of color, calling it an “anti-police narrative.” Then he went after district attorneys who are attempting to reform our criminal justice system from within.

There is another development that is demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.  That is the emergence in some of our large cities of District Attorneys that style themselves as “social justice” reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law…

Once in office, they have been announcing their refusal to enforce broad swathes of the criminal law.  Most disturbing is that some are refusing to prosecute cases of resisting police.  Some are refusing to prosecute various theft cases or drug cases, even where the suspect is involved in distribution.  And when they do deign to charge a criminal suspect, they are frequently seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient.  So these cities are headed back to the days of revolving door justice.  The results will be predictable. More crime; more victims.

Those remarks prompted a response from 70 leaders in criminal justice—including current and former elected prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and former Department of Justice and judicial officials. They wrote a letter repudiating his characterization of their efforts.

Using rhetoric that harkens back to the parochial “tough on crime” narrative of past decades that stoked fear and impeded progress, AG Barr criticized the initiatives of criminal justice leaders across the nation who advocate for diverting more individuals from the justice system; using discretion to redirect precious law enforcement resources better spent on public health and prevention than punishment; and improving fairness and accountability…

Every day men and women in uniform risk their lives to protect our communities and embrace their role as “guardians” of the public’s trust; we are grateful for their courage and sacrifice. Our respect for these brave colleagues does not come at the cost of our respect for the truth or justice. Nor does it suggest that we should ignore lessons learned from decades of failed approaches.

Crime is at a historic low in America. Violent crime has fallen by nearly half over the last quarter century. This profound drop in crime is not due to a rise in incarceration. Indeed, hard data makes it clear that too many cases come into the justice system unnecessarily, and too often incarceration exacerbates the likelihood of future criminal activity…

Informed by this evidence, a new generation of prosecutors and law enforcement leaders are making their communities safer and healthier. They are using their discretion to prioritize the most serious crimes and move conduct better addressed with public health responses out of the justice system. They are implementing policies that recognize the well-established science on juvenile and young adult development. They are advancing the safety of both officers and community members by emphasizing de-escalation rather than reactive violence, and working toward culture change within prosecution and policing. They are protecting the integrity of the justice system and rebuilding public trust by addressing past and present misconduct. Their methods are working and they have the support of their communities.

I quote these criminal justice professionals at length because, contrary to Barr, who harkened back to the failed “tough on crime” approach, they have outlined the steps they’re taking to be “smart on crime.” It is also important to note that they don’t refer to law enforcement officers as being engaged in a “war,” but instead call them “guardians of the public trust.”

Most of the reaction to Attorney General William Barr has focused on his handling of the Mueller report and the Trump-Russia investigation, where he has demonstrated that Trump finally found his new Roy Cohn. But we’ve already seen that, when it comes to criminal justice, Barr doesn’t seem to know the difference between justice and revenge. In his recent speech, the attorney general also demonstrated that he is a culture warrior who is hell-bent on bringing back the failed “tough on crime” approach. It is encouraging to see him getting push-back from professionals who deal with facts and know that they’re doing.

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