On July 28, President Donald Trump appeared in front of a crowd of law enforcement officials and returned to a familiar theme that characterized his campaign: violence.
“And 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, I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,'” the president said.
The backlash against Trump came swiftly. His dehumanization of immigrants, the “thugs” and “animals” that he said, “have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields,” was criticized. His racialized penchant for violence was met with disapproval. His encouragement of police brutality, especially, was widely condemned, most importantly by law enforcement.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempted to do damage control. Sessions met with members of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives at their conference in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 1, where he praised the group as “crucial ambassadors” to bridging the divide between law enforcement and the communities they serve. In direct opposition to the comments from his boss, Sessions pledged to hold those law enforcement officers that behave unlawfully accountable.
People were right to be horrified by President Trump’s ostensible endorsement of police brutality. But such advocacy should come as no surprise to those who have been following the movements of the Department of Justice during the tenure of Jeff Sessions. Indeed, in that moment, Trump simply preached what Sessions has been practicing.
Jeff Sessions has used his brief tenure as attorney general to promote policies that empower law enforcement officials to brutalize Americans, physically, legally and otherwise, beginning with his April decision to execute a review of all ongoing federal consent decrees.
Even during his days in the Senate, Sessions used his platform to disparage consent decrees, agreements that police departments enter into with the federal government. He described them as “dangerous” and “an end run around the democratic process” in an opinion article. In 2015, he took part in a hearing tellingly called “The War on Police.” There, he went so far as to deride the Obama administration’s participation in 14 consent decrees, after conducting 25 investigations into police departments, as “an agenda that’s been a troubling issue for a number of years.”
The decision to review has put the future of standing consent decrees (let alone any not yet in existence) in doubt. This prospect has been made more salient by Sessions’ insistence that it is “not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” With this decision, Sessions has sent the message that allegations of police misconduct will not be taken seriously by the federal government (intentionally or unintentionally), creating an environment in which police abuses like the one President Trump advocated for are allowed to continue without federal oversight.
Sessions followed up his April directive on consent decrees with a promise to empower police departments to increase their use of civil asset forfeiture, the seizure of cash and other assets from individuals, as I predicted he might. Civil asset forfeiture is a constitutional nightmare: Assets can be taken from property-holders without their having been convicted of or even charged with a crime. Only 13 states require convictions before police departments can legally seize assets, meaning that thousands of police departments across the country are profiting financially from appropriating the property of innocent Americans.
So great is the incentive that there have been reports of departments creating actually wish lists of assets to appropriate. In fact, federal law enforcement seized more assets from individuals than burglars did in 2014 with the Department of Justice itself taking $4.5 billion worth of property.
James Morrow, an African American motorist on his way to get dental work done in Houston, was stopped by police officers in August 2007 for what they deemed as him driving too closely to the white demarcations on the road. Claiming the car smelled of marijuana (although none was found), the officers seized the $3,900 he had kept to pay for his procedure, impounded his vehicle, and, in his words, “impounded me too.” Morrow spent a night in jail. Though the officers had not physically harmed Morrow, his ordeal nevertheless constituted a form of brutality. When he was finally released, it was on the side of a road without any means of getting to his destination or back home.
Combined with signals from the Department of Justice that there could be less federal oversight of the affairs of police departments, the attorney general’s decisions suggest that the Department of Justice will look the other way when the rights of individuals come in conflict with police endeavors. The result will likely be that the Department of Justice will have enabled more encounters with police like that experienced by James Morrow, whereby assets are unconstitutionally seized from innocent property-holders. Civil asset forfeiture subverts the legal principle “innocent until proven guilty,” thereby constituting a form of police brutality in and of itself.
One of a number of groups for whom “innocent until proven guilty” does not apply in the eyes of Trump and Sessions is immigrants, especially those that are undocumented. Indeed, contempt for immigrants is what endeared Trump — who famously kicked off his campaign by condemning immigrants from Mexico as “rapists” and “killers” — to Sessions, who has his own reputation as a fiery opponent of immigration in the first place. Back in April, Sessions communicated that he would fulfill Trump’s campaign promises to target undocumented Americans. From Nogales, Arizona, he warned, “For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country be forewarned. This is a new era. This is the Trump era.”
The confluence of Sessions’ racist impulses on immigration with those of the commander-in-chief has empowered him to commit the powers of the Department of Justice toward terrorizing the entire immigrant community. Sessions has chosen so-called “sanctuary cities” as the battlegrounds for his wars on immigration, (erroneously) claiming that they are breeding grounds for crime. Unless these cities comply with federal immigration laws, including allowing enforcement officials access to their jails and providing advance notice of the release of immigrants wanted for questioning, the Department of Justice has threatened that they stand to risk their eligibility for federal funding. At issue is that the cities refuse to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement in their ramped up efforts to round up and eventually deport undocumented immigrants. The Department envisions that these cities would use their resources to identify and detain undocumented Americans. Doing so could create an environment ripe for racial profiling and violations of the constitutional rights of both citizens and the undocumented on the part of law enforcement.
The relationship between President Trump and his attorney general may be somewhat tense at the moment, but their ideologies when it comes to the criminal legal system could not be in closer lockstep. Both are seemingly hell-bent on using the powers of the federal government to marginalize already vulnerable communities, display little regard for constitutional rights and seemingly support the law enforcement community unconditionally. The only difference is a matter of roles: Trump broadcasts and gives voice to the ideology as he did on July 28. Sessions, meanwhile, is busy enforcing and reinforcing it.