President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired a double-shot of reality yesterday at the Black Lives Matter narrative about policing. Trump laid down broad markers for a change in law enforcement policy and tone from the White House during an address to a joint session of Congress. Sessions fleshed out more crime-policy details earlier that day in a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General. Together, both speeches provide hope for a significant turnaround in the nation’s rising violent-crime rate.
Trump’s promise to restore law and order was a centerpiece of his campaign. That theme drove the mainstream media and liberal politicians to a state of near apoplexy. Every time Trump brought attention to the increasing loss of black life in the Black Lives Matter era, the media responded that there was nothing to be concerned about, because crime rates were still below their early 1990s levels. President Barack Obama dismissed the rising inner-city carnage as a mere “blip” in a few cities. That “blip” in 2015, however, was the largest single-year increase in homicide—11 percent—in nearly half a century, as Trump pointed out last night. The victims were overwhelmingly black. Over 900 more black males were killed in 2015 compared with 2014. And the increase in street crime has not abated. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that murders in the 30 largest U.S. cities were 14 percent higher in 2016 compared with 2015, a stunning increase coming on top of 2015’s already-massive homicide rise. While it is true that a two-decade-long violent-crime decline has not been wiped out in two years, if current trends continue, we could find ourselves back to the city-destroying anarchy of the early 1990s soon enough.
Last night, Trump refused to back down on his central civil rights concern: that “every American child should be able to grow up in a safe community.” The media have—astonishingly—called him a racist and Hitler for making that assertion. On the left, it is only acceptable to speak about the loss of a black life if a police officer is responsible. But police shootings, overwhelmingly triggered by violently resisting suspects, cause a minute fraction of black homicide deaths. It is criminals, not the police, who are responsible for the tragic fact that blacks die of homicide at six times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. Nevertheless, the false narrative that we are living through an epidemic of racially biased police shootings has led officers in high-crime areas to disengage from discretionary proactive policing, with the result being greatly emboldened criminals.
Trump last night set out to change that narrative. To ensure that inner-city children enjoy the same safety that other Americans take for granted, “we must work with—not against—the men and women of law enforcement,” Trump said. He continued:
We must build bridges of cooperation and trust—not drive the wedge of disunity and division.
Police and sheriffs are members of our community. They are friends and neighbors, they are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters—and they leave behind loved ones every day who worry whether or not they’ll come home safe and sound.
We must support the incredible men and women of law enforcement.
The most important aspect of that call for “cooperation” and “support” was what Trump did not say. Had this been an Obama speech, the next move would have been a denunciation of systemic police bias. The absence of that police-are-racist coda signals a long-overdue return to criminal-justice realism in the White House.
A few hours earlier, Attorney General Sessions offered a preliminary outline of Trump’s law enforcement policies. Sessions, until recently a senator from Alabama, celebrated the unforeseen conquest of crime that reclaimed many urban areas since the early 1990s. But he warned that “this progress is now at risk.” He noted that when crime rates start going in the wrong direction, bad momentum builds quickly on itself: felony rates doubled from the early 1960s to 1973, for example. Sessions also acknowledged that the current violent-crime increase is not happening uniformly across the country. In a word, it is black areas that are being hit, though Sessions was not that explicit. Like Trump, Sessions has been denounced by some of his fellow legislators and the usual gaggle of left-wing activist groups as a racist. Yet like Trump, he alone among his critics expresses concern for inner-city parents fearful for their children’s safety. “Each victim of this recent spike in violent crime is someone’s parent, or child, or friend,” Sessions reminded his listeners yesterday. “And every loss of a young life to guns or drugs is a tragedy we must work to prevent.”
Sessions offered several explanations for the rising violence, some more persuasive than others. He cited the inflow of illegal drugs across the southern border and the heroin epidemic. But drugs have been coming across the border for decades. The gun violence on the south and west sides of Chicago and other urban areas is as much a function of teenage insults as it is of drug-turf wars. The heroin epidemic is largely hitting white areas, but the violent-crime spike is happening in black neighborhoods.
More on point, Sessions denounced the drop in federal gun and drug prosecutions brought by federal attorneys. The drop was induced by the Obama administration’s claim that federal mandatory-minimum sentences for gun and drug crimes were racist and had led to the “mass incarceration” of minorities.
Most important, Sessions acknowledged that officers are backing away from proactive policing, under the influence of a narrative that maligns law enforcement as a whole “for the unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors,” as he put it. Morale has suffered because officers feel abandoned by the country’s “political leadership,” Sessions said.
To try to get crime rates back on their pre-Black Lives Matter downward trajectory, federal law enforcement resources in the Trump administration will refocus on criminals who use guns to commit crimes and on gangs, Sessions said. A federal law enforcement task force will assess how better to leverage the resources of the federal government; it will look at whether new laws and new ways of analyzing crime data are needed. But in a mark of wisdom, Sessions also recognized the limits of federal power. Crime-fighting is overwhelmingly a local matter, the attorney general acknowledged; the policing revolution responsible for the now-jeopardized twenty-year crime drop originated in city police departments.
In the most far-reaching section of his speech, Sessions signaled a reversal of the Obama administration’s mania for slapping civil rights consent decrees on police agencies. Those decrees were based on a specious methodology for identifying police racism; they diverted scarce resources away from crime-fighting and into paper-pushing.
Sessions could have added one more crucial element to the Trump anti-crime program: compstating federal crime agencies, that is, introducing the commander accountability and intense information-sharing developed by the New York Police Department under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But Sessions’ deeply informed speech, combined with Trump’s unapologetic support for law enforcement, mean that Americans in all parts of the country may eventually enjoy the same basic civil right: freedom from fear.