WASHINGTON, DC — Denouncing a plan by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to increase the flow of military equipment to police and have the Justice Department cease its oversight of police misconduct, The Rutherford Institute warned that if the federal government persists in its pursuit of policies that ignore systemic problems within local law enforcement agencies at the expense of the safety and constitutional rights of the American people, “we the people” will all suffer. In a letter to the Attorney General, constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead urged Sessions to align the Justice Department’s priorities with that of the Constitution and, in doing so, not only protect the civil rights of citizens against abuse of power by state and local law enforcement but also “help police departments get better” by holding them fully accountable to the rule of law.
“Far from being isolated or anecdotal as the Attorney General has claimed, incidents of excessive force and police misconduct have become so prevalent as to jeopardize the integrity of all of the nation’s law enforcement agencies,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “If the federal government continues to sanction systemic police misconduct while escalating the militarization of civil law enforcement agencies, it risks devolving the nation even further toward a police state that imperils the liberty and safety of the American people.”
Federal law gives the U.S. Attorney General the authority to bring a lawsuit to prevent state and local law enforcement agencies from engaging in a pattern or practice of violating the constitutional rights of persons. The Justice Department has used this authority to investigate and sue several cities and their police departments, including Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, which had repeatedly and regularly violated the civil rights of citizens by using deadly force, conducting illegal arrests and searches, and retaliating against persons for exercising their right to free speech. These lawsuits resulted in consent decrees between the Justice Department and local governments in which the local government agreed to submit to federal oversight of its policing and to make reforms to their police departments in order to stop the systemic abuse of citizens by police officers.
However, after being appointed to the office of Attorney General by President Trump, Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would conduct a sweeping review of these consent decrees, signaling a retreat of the federal government from its commitment to protect citizens from civil rights violations by police officers. At the same time, legislation has been introduced in Congress to step up the provision of surplus military weapons to local governments under the “1033 Program,” removing limits placed on the program by President Obama.
In refuting Sessions’ claim that federal oversight of local police unfairly impugns officers by focusing on “the individual misdeeds of bad actors,” Whitehead makes clear that the facts do not bear out the claim that police civil rights violations are isolated or anecdotal. Indeed, police abuse of authority and power is not limited to a few areas of the country, but occurs regularly throughout the United States as a result of SWAT team raids gone awry, misguided knock-and-talk policing tactics, police officers who shoot first and ask questions later, battlefield equipment that is ill suited for domestic law enforcement purposes, and systemic deficiencies in training structures and police accountability.