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Jeff Sessions Just Picked a Fight With COPS

The Attorney General’s threat to “claw back” federal funds from sanctuary cities would imperil the grants program that local police have been clamoring for.

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions greets members of the Fraternal Order of Police. (Ron Sachs/AP)

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions doubled down on his Trump-ordered threat to pull federal funding from cities and counties (and states) that he deems uncooperative with his mission to root out undocumented immigrants, explaining that his Justice Department will “take all lawful steps to claw back any funds” from “sanctuary jurisdictions.”

This isn’t really about public safety—sanctuary cities have lower crime rates, as my colleague Tanvi Misra has reported. Indeed, it’s likely to make cities more dangerous: The specific funds that Sessions is threatening to pull are those that local police departments have been begging the Justice Department to increase for years.

Sessions’s claw is specifically reaching for funds that local police departments use to augment their budgets for hiring, purchasing new equipment, and other expenses that often exceed what city resources can handle. In doing so, the  Attorney General has achieved something previously unimaginable: He’s in alignment with the Movement for Black Lives, which also calls for the defunding of the police (albeit for different reasons).

It’s a proposal made further unlikely by Sessions’s intransigent agenda to simultaneously reduce violent crime by any means necessary while stripping certain cities of funds used for fighting crime. Put more simply, it’s “a joke,” which is how Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel referred to the threat.  

“I think it will make police resent the federal authorities who are trying to ram federal responsibilities down their throat in ways that undermine community policing and the interests of the localities,” says Benjamin N. Cardozo law professor Peter Markowitz. “It is simply not the job of cities to do federal immigration enforcement, and what we’ve heard is the consensus judgment of the law enforcement community is that entangling them with federal immigration enforcement only makes communities less safe, not more.”

Local police have the most to lose in this proposition. Unlike ICE agents, they can’t just swoop into a city or community for drive-by sting operations, and then fly back to some hidden headquarters. Local police still have to work, and in some cases live, in those same cities where the smash-and-grab deportation tactics take place. The police already are not trusted in black and brown communities. To have them busting into doors arresting and shooting the wrong people, or falsely detaining suspected undocumented people, to serve Sessions’s deportation agenda would be an even worse look for them. And they know that.

“One thing Sessions keeps talking about are the ICE detainers,” says policing expert David Harris, who produces the “Criminal Injustice” podcast. “Those are not the same as warrants for criminal behavior. They are not based on a finding of probable cause or even reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. So when police departments hold people on ICE detainers and it turns out that a mistake has been made, then a lawsuit happens and the police department and the city gets sued because they’re holding people without probable cause. People like Sessions, they are pushing these police departments into untenable positions.”

Some police organizations have expressed themselves clearly on this issue. In January, the Major Cities Chiefs’ Association put out a statement rebuffing Trump’s order:

Cities that aim to build trusting and supportive relations with immigrant communities should not be punished because this is essential to reducing crime and helping victims, both stated goals of the new Administration in Washington. We must be able to continue to protect the safety of all of our residents while ensuring that local law enforcement is focused on community policing.

Sessions is also interfering with the one thing that local police communities have prioritized in their struggle to bring down violent crime—the federal Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) programs, which he said was scheduled to dole out over billions of dollars in grants this year. There are few more sought after federal funding sources than COPS grants. This is the funding mechanism created by Congress in 1994 under President Bill Clinton’s now-infamous omnibus crime bill, to help police departments hire more officers. The COPS funding structure was later changed to make it more flexible for police departments to use it to cover other needs, like new equipment and technical training. But Congress has not allocated much of that funding over the last five years.

(Congressional Research Service)

The Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration (LELRCI) made increasing COPS funding a core part of their recommendations to Trump on how to address violent crime. The National Association of Police Organizations, Inc. (NAPO), which represents thousands of mostly rank-and-file officers, recently made the same appeal to Trump. LELRCI, which is composed in part of ex-police chiefs, is a bit more liberal in its policing stances than NAPO, whose game is more about protesting Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance and pushing Blue Lives Matter laws. But on COPS funding, the two associations are in agreement—they both say they need it.

Where NAPO does depart from other police associations is in its position on sanctuary cities—the rank-and-file group supports Sessions’s belief that sanctuary jurisdictions should be punished, including by withholding grants. But here’s where they got duped: In the organization’s January 30 announcement endorsing anti-sanctuary city policies, it expressed relief that police department funding would not be affected. Reads the statement:

The Trump Administration recognizes that law enforcement should not be punished for decisions made by local politicians. By strategically choosing what federal funding to withhold, the Administration is encouraging cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement in enforcing our country’s immigration laws in a way that does not further endanger our communities.

NAPO has long fought against sanctuary city policies. As part of that fight, we support the Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act, introduced by Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Representative Diane Black (R-TN), legislation that aims to end sanctuary cities by withholding federal grant funds from these jurisdictions. Much like the Executive Order, this legislation would not punish law enforcement for decisions made by elected officials by taking away much needed federal grant funding such as the COPS Program …

NAPO leaders must have been widely surprised then this week when it learned that the COPS money is exactly what Sessions is going after—especially since NAPO’s executive director Bill Johnson just met with the Attorney General earlier this month. (CityLab has reached out to NAPO for a response and will update this story if and when we hear back.)

It’s a fair question whether COPS funding is really needed. Police organizations say that the funding was instrumental in helping drive down crime in the 1990s, but this conclusion is not universally shared. The Congressional Research Service, in fact, examined this issue and found that “the studies suggest that COPS grants had a negative impact on crime rates,” especially in cities with more than 250,000 people.

As David Harris says, police departments have used COPS funding for a lot of practices that are now shunned by courts and communities.

“I wouldn’t want to say that COPS funding would reduce crime without knowing exactly what kind of projects it would fund,” says Harris. “If what you want to do with COPS funding is hire more police officers so you can flood the zone with a bunch of stop-and-frisk, I don’t see any evidence that that would reduce violent crime. It might do the opposite by creating more resentment and more crime.”

Whether the COPS funding is effective or not, local police associations have still made getting their hands on more of it one of their top priorities. So what happens when these police groups don’t get this funding as a result of Sessions making good on his threat?

As Markowitz mentioned, some police officers will resent the federal Justice Department for imposing new responsibilities while further complicating their relationships with black and brown communities. Others, like NAPO members, will resent the city administrations that have chosen not to budge on their sanctuary positions. Other police may blame immigrants (or those who they incorrectly profile as immigrants) for this predicament and take their frustrations out on these populations accordingly.  

In any of these scenarios, the outcome is more disgruntled and dissatisfied police, which naturally makes for less safer communities. The only winners? Those who politically profit from keeping residents in a state of fear and uncertainty.

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