Sessions made no reference to these historical forces in his Richmond remarks, let alone any solutions to them. His prescription for issues with American law enforcement was simple: more policing and less criticism of it. On the former, he called for tougher prosecution of violent crimes by federal prosecutors and closer cooperation by law-enforcement agencies to crack down on the illegal-drug trade. On the latter, he raised the specter of more violent crimes if police authority was undermined.
“Unfortunately, in recent years law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors,” Sessions said. “Too many of our officers, deputies, and troopers believed the political leadership of this country abandoned them. Amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, their morale has gone down, while the number of police officers killed in the line of duty has gone up.”
Sessions then drew a direct connection between the rise in violent crime and increased public scrutiny of local police departments. “Many of you who are law enforcement leaders have also told us that in this age of viral videos and targeted killings of police, something has changed in policing,” he said. “Some law enforcement personnel are more reluctant to get out of their squad cars and do the proactive, up-close police work that builds trust and prevents violent crime. In some cities, arrests have fallen even as murder rates have surged.”
Fardon doesn’t seem to entirely disagree. In the letter, he painted a similar picture of the Chicago Police Department’s struggles in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald shooting. “By January 2016, the city was on fire. Cops were under scrutiny. Cops had to worry about the ACLU deal. And many of them just no longer wanted to wear the risk of stopping suspect,” he explained. “So cops stopped making stops. And kids started shooting more—because they could, and because the rule of law, law enforcement, had been delegitimized. And that created an atmosphere of chaos.”
But his solution to this problem was more scrutiny of police departments, not less of it. Outside intervention, he argued, is necessary to bring about change. “The media routinely calls [the Justice Department report] a scathing indictment of CPD,” he wrote. “Not accurate. The report is not a scathing indictment. It may be hard hitting but it is measured and fair. We didn’t say cops are bad. We said CPD has systemic problems that prevent it from supporting good officers, or checking bad officers. And so culture and morale suffer. That’s the truth.”
The federal component, Fardon argues, is especially critical when facing complacent or easily distracted local political bodies. “If you leave correcting those deficiencies to the vagaries of city politics, then you likely lose the long term fight,” he wrote. That may be doubly true for Chicago itself, a city with notoriously ossified political systems. “This city’s history is replete with examples of saying the right thing, in some cases starting the right thing, but then losing focus, particularly if and as the media and public attention pivot toward whatever is the latest crisis.”
That pivot may be imminent. As a senator representing Alabama, Sessions was a prominent skeptic of tighter constraints on law enforcement. He carried that stance into his new role as attorney general, telling legislators during his confirmation hearings that he worried consent decrees “undermine the respect for law enforcement.” Fardon may be right about what’s needed to fix struggling police departments. But Sessions is the one with the opportunity to put his theory to the test.