“What stands between chaos and carnage on the one hand, and the civilized and tranquil society we all yearn for, is the thin blue line of law enforcement.” Attorney General William Barr said this to the Fraternal Order of the Police in New Orleans in an unapologetically pro-tough on crime speech that disparaged reform efforts taking place around the country. This comes five years after the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, which helped fuel protests and movements to combat police brutality across the country.
Barr began by addressing Jeffery Epstein’s death in custody at Manhattan Correctional Center. He then transitioned into a valorization of police officers, comparing them to soldiers at war. Barr stated, “law enforcement is fighting a different type of war. We are fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society. While there are battles won and lost each day, there is never a final resolution – a final victory is never in sight.” This further justifies the militarization of the police and extends the false narrative that civilians acting as police officers are engaged in a war against US residents.
Barr also stressed the need to limit questioning of the police in any fashion saying, “We need public voices, in the media and elsewhere, to underscore the need to ‘Comply first, and, if warranted, complain later.’”
Barr also addressed the latest mass shootings, making reference to using the power of the Justice Department to address domestic terrorism. Chip Gibbons, Policy and Legislative Counsel for Defending Rights and Dissent explained in a recent article how dangerous calls to expand the FBI’s domestic terrorism aurthoriy are. According to Gibbons, , “ this approach is misguided—and dangerous. First of all, the FBI is not an ally in the fight against racism. It has, in fact, often thwarted racial justice advocates and continues to be defined by deep-seated institutional racism.”
The valorization of police officers as guardian of civil society renders criticism and reform actions as morally evil, only furthering the narrative that demanding justice for civilians killed by police is endangering police officers. The Movement for Black Lives emerged as a response to police violence and broader white supremacy. In cities around the country they’ve been involved in organizing and protests in response to a steady stream of police killings of unarmed black people. The comments of William Barr aim to portray this as endangering police officers and subsequently, Black Lives Matter as an extremist group. The FBI has taken a similar route, focusing on a category called “Black Identity Extremists” which is a group essentially made up to allow for surveillance of Black activists.
In an equally troubling section of his speech, Barr went on the offensive against the slew of progressive District Attorneys (DAs) that have been elected around the country. Barr said, here is another development that is demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety. “That is the emergence in some of our large cities of District Attorneys that style themselves as “social justice” reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.” This ignores that these DAs were elected by members of their community, those with the most at stake with crime and police violence.
At a time of mass incarceration, progressive DAs have been a tool to reduce incarceration. In a study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, nearly every state that reduced its prison population also had its crime rate go down. This runs contrary to the panic espoused by Barr, and suggests that if reform DAs focused on reducing incarceration instead of over-prosecuting crime wouldn’t skyrocket.
Barr’s speech was given to the Fraternal Order of the Police and targeted progressive prosectuters in part because of their willingness to charge cops who murder unarmed civilians. As shown with the refusal to charge the cop who killed Eric Garner, federal prosecutors seem unlikely to charge cops for misconduct regardless of circumstances. The latest speech by Barr clearly places reform-minded groups and DAs in opposition to the vision of complete support for the police.
Two of the most potent tools for people to fight for reforms in the criminal justice system were the target of Barr’s speech. First is the ability to challenge the police in cases of violence to which Barr outright dismisses such instances as anomalies and the result of “bad apples.” Second is the democratic elections of District Attorneys, who have the discretion to focus on prosecution and sentencing that helps the community rather than what is the most harsh. Barr and the Trump administration threaten reforms and the ability for communities to exercise their rights with regard to criminal justice issues.