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Don’t expect Loretta Lynch to react to Baltimore the same way Eric Holder did to Ferguson

Alex Wong/Getty

If only Loretta Lynch were still waiting to be confirmed by the Senate, she wouldn't have had to deal with violent protests in Baltimore on her first day as attorney general.

Instead, she started her tenure with a statement condemning the violence "ostensibly in protest of the death of Freddie Gray," as she put it.

One of Lynch's top priorities is extending an olive branch to local police departments, after many of them felt alienated by her predecessor, Eric Holder. If Lynch wants to make it clear that she's not following in her predecessor's footsteps, the unrest in Baltimore provides an early opportunity to do so.

Either way, the question has been called: What will the new attorney general do now in Baltimore — and in future conflicts between police and communities?

What the DOJ does won't change. What the AG says might.

Eric Holder Ron Johnson

Eric Holder with Missouri National Guard Captain Ron Johnson. (Pool/Getty)

Lynch doesn't really have the option of avoiding what's happening in Baltimore right now — her department is heavily involved already. There's a federal investigation into whether police deprived Freddie Gray of his civil rights (though that's an extremely high bar to clear). The DOJ's Community Relations Service is working with officers and officials in Baltimore, just like they did in Ferguson, to improve community outreach during the unrest. And the Community-Oriented Policing Services office — the COPS office — has been conducting an evaluation of the Baltimore Police Department since October.

So as the head of the DOJ, Lynch has a pretty cut-and-dried role. The question is what she'll say, and do, as a leader in her own right. And because her predecessor Holder was so visible and outspoken, a low profile would be its own kind of statement.

The reason Holder had such a high profile during last year's Ferguson protests — and attracted so much Republican vitriol for it — wasn't because of what he directed the DOJ to do. (The department did come out with a pair of reports on Ferguson this spring, but both of those reports seem to be pretty well-respected on both sides.) Instead, it was Holder's physical presence in Ferguson, and the tone of his rhetoric. As I wrote last year:

Both liberals and conservatives tend to see Holder as Obama's id — or, as Jamelle Bouie of Slate put it, as his "anger translator" à la the recurring Key and Peele sketch. Holder himself, according to Politico's Glenn Thrush, has told people that part of his job has been "to talk about things the president can't talk about as easily." That's especially true when it comes to talking about race, where Holder has often been blunter than the president. Holder's been less interested than the president in avoiding the stereotype of the "angry black man," and that stereotype is definitely one strain of the right's obsession with him.

So when Holder wrote "A message to the people of Ferguson" in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August, he also called for peaceful protests. But he started by recognizing, "At the core of these demonstrations is a demand for answers about the circumstances of this young man’s death and a broader concern about the state of our criminal justice system."

Will Lynch represent African Americans to police — or vice versa?

Holder's response to Ferguson is exactly the kind of thing that Lynch came into the DOJ hoping to move away from. Immediately after the Senate voted to confirm her, the New York Times's Matt Apuzzo published a piece saying that her first priority would be a tour of local police departments. The purpose: to counterbalance Holder's tour last year of African-American communities, and make it clear to police officers that she wouldn't echo Holder's perceived "anti-police" tone. (The article has since been rewritten on the Times's site.) And Lynch's statement about Baltimore last night started with blaming violent protesters for "harm to law enforcement officers, destruction of property and a shattering of the peace in the city of Baltimore."

Lynch appears to agree with Holder on substance: that the lack of trust between police departments and African-American communities is a serious problem, and repairing it should be a priority. But that doesn't mean they agree about the best way to do it. Holder was the closest thing in the federal government to a representative of the frustrations that protesters felt — he was representing their frustrations to law enforcement. Lynch appears to see it the other way around: she feels strongly that it's important to make the case to African Americans that "law enforcement is a force for good in minority neighborhoods," as Apuzzo's article says.

Lynch prosecutor

Loretta Lynch as US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. (Stan Honda/AFP)

This would make sense. After all, Lynch is a longtime prosecutor for New York's Eastern District — and as a prosecutor, she has much better relationships with police groups than Holder did. The attorney general, too, is supposed to be the nation's top law enforcement representative. But she's also supposed to be the chief champion of American civil rights — even when those rights are being infringed upon by law enforcement officers. Because that's such a tricky balance to strike, the rhetoric an AG uses matters.

Maybe the unrest in Baltimore will convince Lynch it's more important than ever to persuade African Americans that cops are on their side, and persuade police officers that she is on their side. Or maybe the need to restore peace and legitimacy will move her a little closer to Holder's approach, and make it clear to protesters that someone in government hears them. It will be very interesting to see which.