Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday issued a rare rebuke of police misconduct in his remarks to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, days after President Donald Trump urged police officers not to be “too nice” to suspected criminals.
Sessions, who frequently laments declining morale among officers and opposes federal “consent decrees” that oversee police departments, acknowledged in his remarks that trust and confidence in police among African-Americans had dropped significantly over the past three years as instances of police brutality and fatal shootings have gained national attention.
“We all know the cases of the last several years where, in confrontations with police, lives have been cut short,” Sessions said in his prepared remarks. “Just as I am committed to defending law enforcement who use deadly force while lawfully engaged in their work, I will also hold any officer responsible breaking the law.”
He continued: “You and I know that all it takes is one bad officer to destroy the reputations of so many who work day in and day out to build relationships in these communities and serve with honor and distinction.”
Sessions’ comments did not necessarily represent a pivot from his previously expressed views on policing practices. He also commented on political efforts to rein in certain law-enforcement tactics and suggested that local governments were hamstringing their police departments.
Sessions has consistently denied claims from police-reform advocates that law-enforcement agencies struggle on a systemic level with issues like excessive use of force and unconstitutional practices, and he repeated his stance that departments as a whole should not be punished for individual officers’ behavior.
“We cannot let mayors and city councils run down police in communities that are suffering only to see crime spike in the very neighborhoods that need proactive, community policing the most,” he said. “That helps no one. That protects no one.”
Sessions also did not directly criticize Trump for his comments on Friday, in which he appeared to encourage officers to handle suspects roughly after arresting them.
“When you see these towns, and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough,” Trump said. “I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’ Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over. Like, ‘Don’t hit their head,’ and they’ve just killed somebody. ‘Don’t hit their head.’ I said, ‘You can take the hand away.’ OK?”
Trump’s remarks provoked a fierce backlash from the public, some law-enforcement agencies, and even the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who sent his staff an agencywide memo urging officers to “act honorably” and “earn and keep the public trust.”