William Barr’s Potemkin Efforts to Deal with Police Violence

He wants “voluntarily” reforms to avoid offending the cops.

Three days after the killing of George Floyd, the building that housed the Minneapolis Police Department 3rd precinct  was basically burned to the ground.

On Sunday, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune published an article documenting some of the things that have happened over the years at the 3rd precinct.

One officer kicked a handcuffed suspect in the face, leaving his jaw in pieces. Officers beat and pistol-whipped a suspect in a parking lot on suspicion of low-level drug charges. Others harassed residents of a south Minneapolis housing project as they headed to work, and allowed prostitution suspects to touch their genitals for several minutes before arresting them in vice stings.

These and more substantiated incidents, detailed in court records and police reports, help explain a saying often used by fellow cops to describe the style of policing practiced in the Third: There’s the way that the Minneapolis Police Department does things, and then there’s the way they do it “in Threes.”

Between 2007 and 2017, the city paid out $2.1 million to settle misconduct lawsuits involving Third Precinct officers. Judges have thrown out cases for “outrageous” conduct of the officers, and prosecutors have been forced to drop charges for searches found to be illegal, according to court records.

Perhaps that gives you some idea of the rage that exploded after the video was released of Floyd’s death at the hands of four officers who worked in the 3rd precinct.

The question the entire country is facing right now is: How do we change things to stop this cycle from repeating itself? During an interview on Face the Nation, Attorney General Barr answered that one by pointing to the approach being taken by the Trump administration.

The first thing Barr mentioned is that the president set up a commission on policing. Back in January, I noted some oddities regarding the people who were appointed to serve on that commission.

The first thing to notice is that there is no one on the commission representing civil rights, public defenders, or community groups. Seven of the members are employees of the Justice Department, including the chair, and all of them were appointed during the Trump administration … The rest of the group’s members are either law enforcement officers or prosecutors. For those who have publicly identified their party affiliation, all are Republican.

That is pretty much the definition of how one goes about stacking the deck to produce the outcome you want.

When asked about the fact that the Justice Department hasn’t engaged in investigations of civil rights violations or consent decrees with police departments to end abuses, here is Barr’s response.

…you can actually get more focused change and more real change by working in more collaboration with the police…We are working with police departments to address use of force policies, personnel policies, standards and practices. And we- and we feel that we can make good progress that way without the collateral effects that some of these consent decrees have. There’s been a recent study that’s been talked about from Harvard that indicates that some of these- the collateral consequences of these have been to- to make the police pull back and actually lead to more death, more murders, more crime. So we have to be prudent in how we approach this.

The Harvard study he is referring to was published in 2009 and is titled, “Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree: The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD.” Researchers studied the effects of the consent decree that was put in place after the 1991 beating of Rodney King and a 1999 police corruption scandal. Here are some of their conclusions.

We found the LAPD much changed from eight years ago, and even more so in the last four or five years. Public satisfaction is up, with 83 percent of residents saying the LAPD is doing a good or excellent job; the frequency of the use of serious force has fallen each year since 2004. Despite the views of some officers that the consent decree inhibits them, there is no objective sign of so-called “de-policing” since 2002; indeed, we found that both the quantity and quality of enforcement activity have risen substantially over that period. The greater quantity is evident in the doubling of both pedestrian stops and motor vehicle stops since 2002, and in the rise in arrests over that same period. The greater quality of stops is evident in the higher proportion resulting in an arrest, and the quality of arrests is evident in the higher proportion in which the District Attorney files felony charges.

Our analysis confirmed what others have previously reported: that serious crime is down substantially in Los Angeles over this same period…We asked residents specifically if they think the LAPD could police effectively while also respecting people’s rights and policing within the law. More than twice as many residents see improvement than see deterioration, and the vast majority of each racial and ethnic group is hopeful that this kind of policing will soon be routine.

In other words, Barr is lying about the Harvard study, just as Jeff Sessions did previously.

The attorney general uses that lie to promote the idea that it is preferable to avoid offending police officers who might object to consent decrees. His alternative is to “be prudent in how we approach this” by asking them to make changes voluntarily.

That is precisely why I began this piece with a reminder of what happened in the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd precinct. Barr suggests that we should go to those officers and ask them to change. He worries that if we force the issue, the cops will hold us all hostage by pulling back—leading to more crime.

Take a moment to think about what he’s saying about police officers—that they would take a stand by letting people die. One can only assume that the attorney general is projecting his own attitude onto them because no study on the effectiveness of consent decrees has found that officers responded the way he is suggesting they would.

Given that this is the same attorney general that was willing to use rubber bullets and chemical irritants to force peaceful protesters out of the way so that the president could stage a ridiculous photo op, it is pretty clear that he’s not interested in changing how police operate in this country.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.