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Attorney General William Barr stands for the national anthem during an event at the Department of Justice on December 3, 2019.
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William Barr said certain “communities” should show police more respect, ignoring the reasons why they don’t

“If communities don’t give that support and respect,” Barr said, “they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

At a Justice Department awards ceremony for police officers Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr lashed at out certain “communities” he says fail to show police proper respect, and suggested that these citizens could be stripped of police protection.

“The American people have to focus on something else, which is the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers,” Barr said. “And they have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves.”

He added, “If communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need. ... When police officers roll out of their precincts every morning, there are no crowds along the highway cheering them on and when you go home at the end of the day, there’s no ticker-tape parade.”

Attorney General William Barr awards detectives George Duarte (left) and Jeffrey Richards from the Providence Police Department in Washington, DC on December 3, 2019.
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

The attorney general did not specify which “communities” he believes are derelict in showing proper deference to officers, but many observers took him to mean “black communities,” particularly given anti-police protests in places like St. Louis, Chicago, and Ferguson in recent years have largely been led by and made up of black Americans.

It’s no secret there is often a tense relationship between majority black communities and police officers. What Barr failed to note — and has failed to address as attorney general — is that tension is not born of a lack of respect, but of fear, anger, and a lack of trust that comes from concerns over police shootings (including the shootings of unarmed black people) and tactics like stop-and-frisk and kettling or cordoning of crowds at protests.

Police protection isn’t something to be taken away over exercising one’s First Amendment right or for a community demanding its civil rights be respected — there can be no quid pro quo for policing. This sentiment was one expressed by civil rights activists and legal experts, who were quick to denounce Barr’s words.

On Twitter, Sherrilyn Ifill — the head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund — called Barr’s speech “an appalling, unacceptable statement,” writing, “His remarks serve as an invitation to police to ‘stand down’ in the face of ‘disrespect’ & is a violation & betrayal of the AG’s oath as a law enforcement [officer].”

And University of Michigan law professor Barbara McQuade added, “We should all be grateful for the sacrifices and service of police officers, but misconduct should be called out and addressed. Blind devotion is not a requirement for receiving police service.”

Barr’s comments ignore the problems with policing in America

Barr has long argued that there is something wrong with policing in the US — and that the problem isn’t the police. In August, for instance, he claimed district attorneys are “undercutting the police” and have become “dangerous to public safety” by pushing for criminal justice reforms.

In that same speech — given to the US’s largest police union — Barr made the case for expansive police authority, and said when given police instruction, citizens need to “‘Comply first, and, if warranted, complain later,’” adding that he believes there should be “zero tolerance for resisting police.”

A demonstrator protesting the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald holds up a sign during an attempt to disrupt holiday shoppers along in Chicago on December 24, 2015.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

His “tough on crime” opinions — from past support for mass incarceration to his role in creating the “war on drugs” — were raised ahead and during his confirmation hearing, including when Sen. Cory Booker brought up comments Barr had made about there being no racism in the justice system.

Barr retracted those comments when challenged by Booker, saying, “There’s no doubt there are places where there’s racism still in the system. But I said overall, I thought, that as a system, it’s working.”

The system, however, is not working. Many communities have complicated relationships with the police that are based in legitimate fear.

Police killings of unarmed black people, and the deaths of black Americans in police custody, is one source of this concern. And the results of many cases brought against the officers responsible for these deaths — from the officers brought to trial over the death of black Baltimore man Freddie Gray being found not guilty to the officer who killed Eric Garner being allowed to keep his job for five years after the man’s death — have led to anger.

The same feelings are evident in other communities of color that have also suffered similar incidents, from the killing of an unarmed Latino man, Anthony Jose Vega Cruz, during a traffic stop in May to the July shooting of unarmed Chinese immigrant Li Xi Wang. And, of course, many immigrants have deep concerns about Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies.

All told, at least 850 people have been shot and killed by police this year, according to the Washington Post’s database. A database run by journalist D. Brian Burghart puts the number of Americans killed by police (including by police cars, smoke bombs, and physical assaults) at 1,545.

Both those figures include people of all races and backgrounds. But experts believe an American’s risk of a bad — or fatal — police encounter depends on one’s race.

Just this year, researchers Frank Edwards of Rutgers University, Hedwig Lee of Washington University in St. Louis, and Michael Esposito of the University of Michigan analyzed data on fatal police encounters from 2013 to 2018, and found black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed than white Americans. Over the course of a lifetime, one out of every 1,000 black men can be expected to be killed by police, the researchers found; the rate for white men was on a different order of magnitude: 3.9 deaths for every 10,000 white men (on the same scale, that’s 10 black men killed for every 10,000 black men).

These results were supported by the findings of the Justice Department under the Obama administration, which prioritized the review of police departments accused of racial bias in their work, opening 25 investigations into the matter — cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Portland were looked at. The results were usually not good.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was found to “have engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against African Americans.” The Baltimore Police Department’s work was found to “disproportionately harm African Americans in Baltimore, resulting in disparities, along with other evidence of intentional discrimination, that erodes public trust.” In Chicago, federal investigators found “widespread constitutional violations, combined with unaddressed abusive and racially discriminatory conduct.”

It is this sort of behavior that has the communities Barr referred to on edge when it comes to the police. Citizens may not be showing law enforcement the respect Barr says they deserve because his Justice Department found those police departments are not treating the Constitution or the law with respect, either.

If a resident in Chicago cannot interact with the police with the certainty that interaction won’t result in a “constitutional violation,” and if a resident in Baltimore can’t speak to an officer without fear of “intentional discrimination,” why should they trust any officer, let alone respect them?

Barr could help change the perception of police, but has chosen not to

As attorney general, Barr is in a unique position to help bridge the divide between communities affected by poor quality policing and police departments.

The Department of Justice investigations launched during the Obama administration resulted in at least 15 consent decrees — arrangements under which local governments consent to federal oversight in order to bring their policing in line with federal civil rights law.

The last of these decrees, made with Baltimore and Chicago, were threatened by Barr’s direct predecessor, Jeff Sessions. In a speech on the Chicago decree, Sessions said, “Micromanaging the CPD through a federal court isn’t just unjustified — it is an insult.”

Jeff Sessions, seen here in 2017, objected to the police oversight consent decrees during his time as attorney general.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ultimately both were put into place over Sessions’s objections, and remain in place, but Trump’s Justice Department has not focused much on further police department review — in fact, just before he was fired, Sessions changed the rules around consent decrees, making new ones more difficult to create.

Barr supported this decision even before becoming the head of the Justice Department. During his confirmation hearing, when asked about Session’s decision, Barr said, “I generally support the policies reflected in former Attorney General Sessions’s memorandum.” That general support has translated into no new investigations into departments, or consent decrees.

Barr has not taken serious action to stop the oversight already in progress. But if Barr put the same energy, department resources, and federal money he puts into looking into disproven conspiracy theories about the 2016 election into police department reform — particularly in cities that suffer from the sort of “unaddressed abusive and racially discriminatory conduct” Justice Department investigators found in Chicago — police departments might begin to repair the damaged relationships they have with so many of the communities they have sworn to protect.


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