“One of the big things out there that’s, I think, causing trouble, and where you see the greatest increase in violence and murders in cities is somehow, some way, we undermined the respect for our police and made, oftentimes, their job more difficult,” he said in a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General. “It’s not been well-received by them, and we’re not seeing the kind of effective, community-based, street-based policing that we found to be so effective in reducing crime.”
Session appeared to be offering a tacit endorsement of what some call the “Ferguson effect,” the idea that police officers have become less aggressive during an era of increased scrutiny of law enforcement. (The name comes from the Missouri city inflamed by protests in 2014 after a white police officer fatally shot an 18-year-old black man.)
Sessions’s predecessor, former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch, has said there is “no data to support” this theory, but the general idea has had some high-profile backers. FBI Director James B. Comey has mentioned multiple times that he is concerned about a link between the increase in homicides and police officers’ fear of being recorded during a tense situation in a video that then goes viral.
Speaking to reporters last year, Comey said he resisted the term “Ferguson effect” and instead called it “a sort of viral video effect” that “could well be at the heart of this.”
Sessions was originally supposed to spend more time on this topic in his speech Tuesday. According to a copy of his prepared remarks, which were released by the Justice Department, Sessions had planned to refer to Comey’s comments and note oncerns about viral videos.
“We’ve also heard from law enforcement leaders, including the FBI Director and many police chiefs, that something is changing in policing,” Sessions planned to say, according to the prepared remarks. “They tell us that in this age of viral videos and targeted killings of police, many of our men and women in law enforcement are becoming more cautious. They’re more reluctant to get out of their squad cars and do the hard but necessary work of up-close policing that builds trust and prevents violent crime.”
Current and former police officers have said they feel anxious since the protests in recent years. But criminologists have said it is too soon to draw any conclusions from or agree upon a cause for the increases in violent crime, which is still at historically low levels.
Sessions had planned to mention the historically low crime levels in his prepared speech before suggesting the recent uptick represented “a dangerous new trend.” Those remarks would have echoed President Trump, who during the campaign and in office has repeatedly offered a grim assessment of a nation besieged by violence.
In the prepared remarks, Sessions had offered a more robust defense of police officers, saying that “in recent years law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors.” Sessions also planned to describe declining morale among law enforcement officers and to note that the number of police officers killed in the line of duty went up last year, fueled by an increase in ambush attacks and shootings.
“Attacks on police officers are real and tragic, but the reference to Ferguson-like effects is largely anecdotal,” Richard Berk, a University of Pennsylvania professor of statistics and criminology, wrote in an email Tuesday after reading Sessions’s prepared remarks. “There may or may not be something there. My understanding is that the evidence supporting such claims is not really persuasive one way or another in part because it will vary across jurisdictions.”
In the prepared speech, Sessions had also planned to promise “steadfast support” for local law enforcement, saying that the federal government should not be “dictating to local police how to do their jobs — or spending scarce federal resources to sue them in court.”
During his address to the attorneys general on Tuesday, Sessions did not explain why he diverted so much from his prepared speech, only saying at the beginning: “I’ve got a nice speech here, but maybe we can just chat.”
Both the prepared remarks and the speech Sessions delivered showed a further break from the Obama administration’s Justice Department, under which federal officials investigated a number of local police departments and forced significant reforms. Trump has painted himself as a strong advocate of law enforcement, pledging to be an advocate of law and order. It was widely expected that the Justice Department in a Trump administration would seek fewer probes of local police departments, among other changes.
Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, has been critical of the consent decrees that force reforms on police departments, saying during his confirmation hearings that they “undermine the respect for police officers.”
During the final days of the Obama administration, the Justice Department pushed to cement police reform agreements in Baltimore and Chicago, two cities where the department’s Civil Rights Division opened investigations after protests and then released scathing reports assailing both departments.
A week before Trump took the oath of office, the Justice Department released the results of its investigation into the Chicago Police Department, saying that officers there routinely use excessive force and violate the constitutional rights of residents. Chicago city leaders pledged to negotiate with the federal government on a court-enforceable order reforming the police department.
But even though Lynch, the former attorney general, said she thought the agreement would live on into the Trump administration, it remains unclear what will happen with those negotiations now that Sessions leads the Justice Department.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Sessions was noncommittal about a potential consent decree involving Chicago’s police. He also criticized the Justice Department’s report on the Chicago police, along with one looking into the Ferguson police force, while acknowledging that he had not actually read them.
“I have not read those reports, frankly,” Sessions said. “I’ve read summaries of them. And some of it was pretty anecdotal and not so scientifically based. You have 800,000 police in America. I imagine a city of 800,000 people, there’s going to be some crime in it. Some people are going to make errors and do wrong things.”
When asked about Chicago’s police department, Sessions said he had made no decision about a consent decree but expressed concern about the “surge of murders” in the city. In that, he is also echoing Trump, who has made a habit of invoking Chicago’s violence time and time again, prompting the city’s top police officer last week to say that the city was still waiting on a response to its requests for federal help.
In his speech, Sessions said the Justice Department “has an absolute duty to ensure that police operate within the law” and prosecute those officers who violate that. Authorities need to “help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness,” he said, adding, “and I’m afraid we’ve done some of that.”
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.