I worked as a federal prosecutor for 29 years in administrations from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. I blame the administration of President Donald Trump and his attorney generals Jeff Sessions and William Barr for the violence erupting in our cities — including Philadelphia — after police use of excessive force.
As a recent transplant back to the city of my youth to teach law school, I have watched twice now this year as businesses in Center City place sheets of plywood over store windows. While the Carolinas board up their windows with hurricane shutters to ward against storms, we here in Philadelphia should have “PSS” — police shooting shutters.
I have been in law enforcement as a prosecutor for most of my adult life, and my young children grew up thanking all the officers who “protected mommy” by guarding her in the courtroom and in the courthouse. The men and women in blue have an unenviable task, as many future defendants “on the street” have mental health issues, yet nominal to no access to mental health services. Meanwhile, the police have little training and few options when encountering those suffering mental illness who may be committing crimes.
In the aftermath of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by police, the federal government’s role has been to help police departments improve citizen-police officer outcomes with the enactment of judicially sanctioned consent decrees. Congress passed legislation in 1994, giving the U.S. Department of Justice the authority to identify police departments with use of force, and other misconduct issues, and enter into consent decrees — what I call “good behavior agreements” — negotiated and signed off by federal judges.
Some of these behavior agreements result in training on the circumstances as to when and if to shoot suspects. Police departments in cities under consent decrees, to include — New Orleans (2012 decree), Cleveland (2015 decree), and Los Angeles (2016 decree) — all saw significant reductions in excessive use of force incidents after the decrees (along with the new training components) were implemented.
Social science studies — including a Harvard University Kennedy School report on policing under a consent decree — have shown, among other things, that training reduces violence.
Additionally, multiple studies, such as a 2010 survey by two Michigan State University professors, titled, “Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior,” have concluded that the more education an officer has, the less likely he or she is to shoot first. Officers who graduate from college are 40% less likely to use force than less educated officers.
Attorney General Barr (for whom I worked in the administration of the first President Bush) has consistently opposed significant police reform. Instead, he has endorsed operations like Project Trigger Lock, which used federal firearms laws to ratchet up the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences predominantly against people of color.
Barr’s antipathy to improving police behavior and outcomes remains a feature of his service as attorney general to the current president.
In 2017, three weeks before the commencement of the Trump administration, President Obama’s Civil Rights Division (a part of the U.S. Department of Justice, which executes and implements the “good behavior” agreements with police departments) issued a comprehensive report on DOJ’s police reform work. Under President Obama, DOJ issued or enforced some 19 consent decrees or binding agreements with both big city and small-town police departments. Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, issued 11. Our current president? None.
The Trump Department of Justice under both Sessions and Barr has balked at even enforcing preexisting consent decrees. It is one of the jobs of government at all levels to ensure the safety of its citizens. This is a duty shared by the federal government and the states. Consent decrees are one way to help police departments serve and protect us all.
This president and our attorney general are, in large measure, responsible for the persisting nationwide police propensity to shoot first. The federal government could have insisted on rectifying this, and monitored police progress by the measure of reductions in shootings.
But instead, this administration has done nothing but blame mayors and governors. I am appalled that few know about the federal government’s post-Rodney King role in the creation and enforcement of consent decrees, and they know nothing of this president and his attorney generals’ role in undermining our safety by shirking their responsibility to improve police-citizen outcomes through consent decrees.
The public should be apprised of this administration’s intentional and costly failure and how it has impacted our lives. If the public knew and insisted on the president’s enactment and enforcement of consent decrees, maybe then we could spend less time boarding up storefronts and more time making our city truer to its moniker — a place of brotherly love.
Julie Werner-Simon is a Drexel University adjunct law professor and former federal prosecutor (1986-2015).