As Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ delivered his usual recitation of the ills of violence and drugs plaguing America Tuesday, he added in a problem he rarely brings up unprompted: police misconduct.
Sessions often chastises others for badmouthing police and, indeed, his remarks to an African-American law enforcement group in Atlanta, included just such a passage.
But what was more notable was his public acknowledgment that "bad" officers were contributing to a lack of community trust.
"We all know the cases of the last several years when in confrontations with police, lives have been cut short," Sessions told the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives conference. "Just as I’m committed to defending law enforcement who lawfully have to use deadly force to defend themselves while engaged in their work, I will also use the power of the office I’m entrusted with to hold any officer responsible who violates the law."
"You know all it takes is for one bad officer to destroy the reputations of so many who work every day to build good relationships in these communities and who serve with honor and distinction," Sessions added.
The attorney general also said it is a serious problem that minority communities are distrustful of police. And he called the difficulty in recruiting a "catastrophe."
"Only 30 percent of African Americans say they have confidence in the police," Sessions said. "In the last three years, that number dropped by 5 points. This is a trend that we must reverse. This is important. We have to have good relationships with our communities and we have to be effective at preventing crime in every community."
Sessions latest remarks hardly demonstrate a conversion to a liberal stance on police abuse issues. Even the framing of police misconduct as limited to bad officers suggests he’s skeptical of claims that some large police departments systemically violate the rights of individuals they encounter.
Sessions has also been critical of consent decrees that the Obama administration Justice Department entered into to resolve such allegations in places like Baltimore, Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri. Shortly after Sessions was sworn in, the department made a move to potentially ditch or revise the Baltimore agreement, but a judge there finalized it anyway.
The attorney general also alluded Tuesday to stop-and-frisk policies, arguing that police were unwise to abandon the practice, even though it angers many civil rights activists and can increase tension with minority communities.
"We cannot let the politicians, as they sometimes do, run down police and communities that are suffering only to see crime spike in those communities," Sessions said. "We don’t need to be telling police not to do their job in those communities that helps no one that protects and tends to depress the morale of our police. We absolutely must not abandon proven, constitutional techniques and procedures."
Sessions remarks came several days after President Donald Trump appeared to endorse rougher handling of suspects. Those comments drew an unusual repudiation from a top Justice Department official, acting Drug Enforcement Administration chief Chuck Rosenberg. Sessions did not address them directly in his speech Tuesday, but the Washington Post reported that an official from the group that hosted Sessions said the attorney general said Trump appeared to be joking. The White House has also said the comments were a joke.
Sessions told reporters earlier this year that he believes police misconduct cases should generally be handled by local authorities, although critics say it is often difficult for local prosecutors to pursue such cases vigorously while maintaining the usual working relationship between police and prosecuting attorneys.
During his remarks to the NOBLE meeting Tuesday, Sessions also expressed personal affection for the 41-year-old group of top-ranking, African-American law enforcement leaders.
"I have always understood the value of this organization," the attorney general said. "A number of my good friends have been members."