Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
There are many known unknowns about what Trump and Sessions are planning for their law-and-order agenda. Here’s what it all adds up to.
In his first 100 days in office, Donald Trump may have been inconsistent and incoherent on many of his campaign promises. But he’s been unwavering in his attacks on “inner city” crime, which his hand-picked Attorney General Jeff Sessions deceptively describes as “surging in American cities.”
Violent crime has indeed risen to concerning rates in Baltimore and Chicago—but those two cities alone are responsible for much of the rise that has occurred across the U.S. since 2015. As the Brennan Center for Justice reported this week, overall crime has fallen in the nation’s 30 largest cities to 2,857 incidents per 100,000 people from its peak of 5,856 incidents in 1991. Violent crime has dropped from 716 incidents per capita to 366, and murder from 9.8 killings per 100,000 to 5.3 in that same time period.
But these numbers don’t matter to Trump; these cities are not where his support comes from. The tough-on-crime messages are really targeted at stoking the fears of small towns and suburbs where the president’s supporters equate crime with people of color. He’s been consistent on the crime message, because the racist underpinnings of that issue propelled him to power and could keep him there.
Yet, as undeviating as Trump and Sessions have been on the crime front, there are still some known unknowns in terms of what they will actually deliver. The Brennan Center for Justice released a report Thursday that sizes up Trump’s first 100 days on criminal justice and what damage may come from it. A few things stand out in the report as real wild cards:
1) The new crime task force
Trump directed Sessions to create the “Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety” in February. The Brennan Center and many other criminal justice reform advocates believe this will dial back important recently passed reforms that have helped reduce incarceration. Indeed, Trump’s new task force feels like a spiteful response to the 21st Century Policing Task Force created by President Obama, which was designed to make fighting crime smarter—and less oppressive for people of color.
Yet, while a number of thought-leading criminologists and police chiefs served on that task force, there are none of either serving on Sessions’s. Instead, it’s made up of representatives from the FBI, DEA, ATF, and the U.S. Marshals Service. It’s headed by Steven H. Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, who really wants to start locking people up in volumes, like back in the day. It very much feels like a 20th-century policing task force.
We don’t yet know the extent of the damage this task force could cause, mainly because it’s still in the planning stage, though its forthcoming national summit might yield some new policies. So far, it sounds like the taskforce was set up to give Sessions a way to derail the Baltimore police department reform consent decree. In a court filing for the consent decree hearing, Sessions listed the creation of the task force as a reason to slow that process up. But the judge proceeded to sign and seal the consent decree anyway.
This surely won’t be the last we’ll hear of Sessions’ beef with these agreements.
2) The fate of consent decrees
As Sessions wrote in an April 17 op-ed for USA Today:
[A]mid this plague of violence, too much focus has been placed on a small number of police who are bad actors rather than on criminals. And too many people believe the solution is to impose consent decrees that discourage the proactive policing that keeps our cities safe.
Sessions isn’t even trying to be coy about dismissing police accountability. On April 5, he sent a letter to Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), which represents rank-and-file officers, inviting them to his crime task force. If there has ever been a progressive police reform policy floated that attempts to hold police accountable for racial discrimination or violence towards civilians, you can bet NAPO has opposed it. Johnson responded to Sessions’ invitation, writing:
Under the Obama Administration, consent decrees have exemplified a top-down, Washington knows best, one-size-fits all, coercive approach to how state and local policing should be done, what officers should look like, and even what they should think and believe. Such agreements do not instill a sense of partnership between the Justice Department and the law enforcement agencies they address, which affects the efficacy of the consent decrees. They also have deleterious effects on officer morale and public safety as rank-and-file officers feel attacked and unsupported by their governments and political officials.
NAPO applauds Attorney General Sessions for directing the Department to undertake a comprehensive review of all consent decrees to ensure they are meeting their goals, not being used to further any extraneous policies and are not lasting longer than the period of time required to rectify the original problem.
By involving NAPO, Sessions has activated a nationwide police force to help him dismantle policies that are supposed to rein in police abuses.
3) The question of who represents law enforcement
The Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration (LELRCI), which works with the Brennan Center, consists of nearly 175 reform-minded ex-police chiefs, prosecutors, and attorneys general. However, this is far from the only organization claiming to represent the voice and thoughts of law enforcement. There’s not only NAPO, but the Major Cities Police Chiefs, the International Association of Police Chiefs, and a whole encyclopedia of other orgs dedicated to repping police, prosecutors, parole officers, district attorneys and anyone else connected to the criminal justice complex.
Many of these are groups are pushing for the opposite of reforms, and a lot of them supported Sessions’s nomination for Attorney General. The Brennan report notes that “police unions who support Trump represent rank-and-file officers.” It’s clear that the Obama administration was much more open-minded to the kinds of reforms groups like the LELRCI have in mind. The same can not be said for the Trump administration. But to be honest, it’s not always clear who Trump and Sessions are listening to.
4) Where cuts to police funding will land
The Brennan Center also spells out how the Trump administration could mess with local police funding:
The Justice Department could redirect grant streams to more directly fund local law enforcement activities. Some of these changes could be made without Congressional approval. The attorney general can recalibrate grants to incentivize changes in state criminal justice policy, and previous leaders of the Justice Department have done just that.
This is all made more complicated by the fact that Trump has entangled his crime-reduction agenda with his anti-immigration agenda, sending mixed messages to local police in the process. Cities are now expected to comply with Trump’s ICE detainer demands for those suspected of being undocumented. Sessions said he will take away key police funding streams if these cities don’t cooperate. The Trump administration is both promising and threatening police resources in the same breath.
It doesn’t make sense, unless Trump is using the war on immigration to reward and remunerate the police departments of exurbs and small towns that support him, and punish the city police departments that don’t.
5) The next war on drugs
A recent memo from Sessions to the nation’s U.S. Attorneys reads that his new task force will have subcommittees “undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities.”
It’s in this one awkwardly worded line that we understand that Sessions is attempting to link marijuana to violent crime, though the research does not totally support this. But there is a link between incarceration and violent crime—the former makes the latter worse.
We also know that while Sessions is referring to the opiate problem as a “public health crisis,” he is referring to marijuana as something that only bad people do. Given African Americans are arrested for possessing weed at far higher rates than whites (even after weed legalization), it’s safe to assume that people of color will be targeted for criminalization under Sessions’ drug enforcement.
Again, while his task force has yet to roll out any concrete policies, we can safely guess that, as the Brennan Center report notes: “The benefits of opioid treatment efforts may inure to white communities, while communities of color would bear the brunt of rising marijuana prosecutions.”
In other words: White people will get rehabbed; black people will get rejailed.
This will only deepen the growing gulf between urban and non-urban communities. Voters from the so-called heartland probably don’t care much about White House waffling over whether China manipulates currency, or whether Syria needs regime change. But if Trump tells them that an urban crime wave is lapping on their front doorsteps, that’ll move them to the polls.