INDIANAPOLIS — Sitting across from the attorney general in a plush green chair, Indianapolis police patrolman Jeff Patterson talked of the colleagues he had seen killed, the others who had taken their own lives and the stress that had left him staring for hours at his computer screen when he was supposed to be working.
Loretta E. Lynch stared at him intently and nodded, offering only occasional comments. For Patterson, just that was meaningful.
“Thank you for caring,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “It’s the first time that anybody has.”
Since she took office a year ago, Lynch has made a point of mending relations between the Justice Department and local police, even as the two sometimes find themselves at odds in civil rights investigations and use-of-force cases. Indianapolis was the ninth stop on her Community Policing Tour, in which Lynch visits various cities across the country to chat with officers and commanders about their work and their relationship with residents.
“Look, we’re all law enforcement,” Lynch said in an interview. “As part of my role as attorney general, I think it’s important that the Department of Justice have a strong working relationship with our state and local counterparts. Frankly, it also makes for better policing. It makes for safer policing.”
The tour is part public-relations campaign and part opportunity for officers and their bosses to chat with the country’s top law-enforcement official about problems. The particular objective in Indianapolis was to highlight the police department’s efforts to promote officer safety and wellness through a program meant to encourage those experiencing mental-health problems to seek help. But the trip also helps improve the Justice Department’s reputation among those patrolling city streets.
Lynch sat in on an Indianapolis police training class and a roll call and spoke at a roundtable of officers, community leaders and health professionals. She more than once paused to recognize two officers killed in the line of duty — Officer Steven Smith of Columbus, Ohio, and Sheriff’s Deputy Carl Koontz of Howard County, Ind. — a point that resonates with police.
Lynch met personally for nearly an hour with Patterson and his wife, Teresa, continuing the conversation even as her staffers tried gently to get her to leave for her next event.
Patterson, 53, told Lynch about the grisly crime scenes he had witnessed, the problems the job caused in his home life and the inhospitable attitude among officers toward those in their ranks with mental-health problems. He said he received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder five years ago, and he hoped the attorney general would push for national standards so that others in his situation would not face professional setbacks for seeking help.
“It’s one of the things I’ve had to do,” Patterson said.
“Takes a lot of strength, actually,” Lynch responded.
That is not to say that Lynch is universally loved by those in local law enforcement, or that she is dialing back the Justice Department’s role in investigating and prosecuting alleged police wrongdoing.
Under Lynch, the department has opened major pattern-or-practice civil rights investigations of the Chicago and Baltimore police departments and has negotiated consent decrees with several others, requiring local leaders to implement significant and sometimes costly reforms. In fiscal 2014 and 2015, the Justice Department charged 129 people working in law enforcement with civil rights violations.
The department sued the city of Ferguson, Mo., when local leaders balked at signing an agreement to implement reforms, and the city ultimately agreed to the changes that Lynch’s department had sought. Lynch also has — to the chagrin of some police officers — said there is “no data” backing the existence of what has been called the “Ferguson effect,” an idea that officers are policing their communities less aggressively out of fear of becoming embroiled in high-profile incidents. FBI Director James B. Comey is among those to say that there is legitimacy to the theory.
Lynch defended her position in an interview and said other people’s views might be a reaction to the “uncertainty” that comes with changes in the profession.
“There is no data to support it, and certainly the officers and chiefs that I’ve talked to, you know, feel very much that their officers are still engaged, still committed and still dedicated to protecting and serving their communities,” Lynch said.
In Cleveland — which reached a consent decree the month after Lynch was confirmed in her job — the attorney general’s tour has not done much to allay the concerns of officers that they cannot always count on the backing of those in the highest levels of government, said Steve Loomis, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association.
Loomis said that he thinks federal investigators came to “completely false conclusions” about the police department and that he wishes Cleveland leaders had pushed back in court. He said that the investigation was “politically motivated” and that it was difficult to reconcile the “sound bites” from Lynch’s visits to local police departments with the Justice Department’s actions.
“If you’re going to come out and do listening tours and act like you’re listening, then you have to act on what you’re hearing, and she’s not doing that,” Loomis said.
But Lynch has made some progress mending relations with police that might have been frayed because of her predecessor’s outspokenness on race and civil rights issues, other union officials said.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said that when he first met Lynch, he was “prepared to be unimpressed” by a U.S. attorney who at the time was not particularly high-profile. But what was to have been a 15-minute meeting with FOP leaders during Lynch’s attorney-general confirmation process turned into a vigorous, 45-minute discussion, and at a reception some days later, Lynch approached him to press a point she had forgotten to make earlier.
Pasco said that he was “pretty impressed by that” and that he has maintained a close relationship with the Justice Department through one of Lynch’s top lawyers, Vanita Gupta, who heads the Civil Rights Division and with whom Pasco said he speaks three or four times a week.
Lynch’s tour has included Birmingham, Ala.; Richmond, Calif.; Cincinnati; and Pittsburgh. She has three stops planned, in Fayetteville, N.C., Phoenix and Los Angeles. This year’s visits take her to cities that Justice Department officials think are implementing policies spelled out by the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a group of police, civic and academic leaders asked to research best practices in local law enforcement.
An explosive event could, of course, instantly sour any good relationships that have been built. Union leaders said officers were critical in particular of strident rhetoric that then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. used in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an African American, 18-year-old Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. The Justice Department, while finding broader race-related problems with law enforcement in the city, ultimately did not charge the officer in that case.
Prosecutors under Lynch have recently been presenting evidence to a grand jury in the death of Eric Garner, 43, whose video-recorded takedown by New York City police officers sparked national outrage. Lynch declined to comment on that case specifically but said her tour would not change the way the Justice Department investigates and prosecutes officers who are accused of wrongdoing.
“They have to trust that we look at these cases thoroughly, fairly, independently, efficiently, but the same way every time,” she said.