When White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the recent fatal shootings in several cities of Black men by police, her answer spoke volumes about the importance — or lack of it — with which Team Trump views such tragedies.
“Certainly, a terrible incident,” she said. “This is something that is a local matter. And that’s something that we feel should be left up to the local authorities at this point in time.”
A “local matter”? I’m sure Sanders did not intend to remind me of old-school Southern segregationists who condemned civil rights protesters a half-century ago as “outside agitators,” but to me the comparison was obvious.
Yes, allegations of police misconduct are a local issue. But when the questions involve fundamental constitutional rights, they become an issue of concern for all Americans, whether the White House treats them that way or not.
Even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said as much in his historic “I Have a Dream” speech: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ ” he said. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
In that spirit, President Barack Obama’s administration aggressively pursued consent decrees — basically, binding legal agreements of reform — in Baltimore, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo., among other cities. In the Obama administration’s final days, the Department of Justice also released a lengthy report on abuses by the Chicago Police Department.
But all those efforts were thrown into jeopardy after Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general, ordered a review of all the agreements. In a March 31, 2017, memo, Sessions voiced concern for “officer safety, officer morale, and public respect” and declared “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
The impact of Sessions’ position is being felt at a time when another police shooting of an unarmed Black man has been making national headlines. Stephon Clark, 22, was struck eight times by police in Sacramento, Calif. An autopsy report showed that most of those shots were to Clark’s back, which conflicts with the police account that he posed a threat to officers. The police said they thought he had a gun, but only a cellphone was found near his body.
And as angry residents protested that killing, officials in Baton Rouge, La., decided not to charge two police officers in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, 37, two years earlier. Sterling was shot by police while resisting arrest in a scuffle that was caught on video.
Few police officers ever face trial for shooting deaths. Many fewer are convicted. Juries understandably tend to give the benefit of their doubts to police, who risk their lives in a very tough job. But among other benefits, federal consent decrees have dealt not only with the circumstances of individual cases but also with systemic problems.
In each of those cities subjected to Justice Department investigations and reform efforts, Justice found evidence of a “pattern or practice” of biased policing on a wider scale than any individual officer.
So far, the results of such federal interventions have been mixed. The Washington Post, which launched its own national database of police shootings in 2015, found last year that in five of the 10 police departments for which sufficient data were available, use of force by officers actually increased during and after the agreements. In five others it stayed the same or declined.
In most of the departments, the interventions dragged on for years beyond the original projections, pushing costs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Officer morale reportedly plummeted during the interventions and police-community relations did not always improve.
In short, federal consent decrees are far from a perfect remedy, but as an old saying goes, we should not let our pursuit of the perfect be an enemy of the good. Let’s not bury the improvements that we’ve made in police-community relations since the 1960s. Let’s make more.