“War on Police” Hearing Devolves into War on Reality

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When it came time for him to ask a question, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) remarked “I know there was an effort to make this a neutral title for this hearing, but I think it leans a little bit in a provocative way.”

To say that titling a hearing on the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s oversight of law enforcement “War on Police: How the Federal Government Undermines State and Local Law Enforcement” “leans a little bit in a provocative way” is of course a dramatic understatement. However, that comment more so than any other sums up the tone of the hearing—mild-mannered statements, rooted in facts, verging almost on being reasonable juxtaposed with longwinded, fact-free monologues drenched in hyperbole and mentioning everything from the color that Levite priests wore in the Old Testament (blue!) to US-Cuban relations and transgender rights. If this sounds hopelessly disjointed and potentially divorced from reality, that’s because it is.

Backing up for a minute, the “War on Police Hearing” was held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts on November 17, 2015, and was presided over by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).  Cruz used his power as chair of the committee to launch into speeches. This was particularly awkward during his closing remarks when the panning C-SPAN cameras revealed only one other committee member, Ranking Member Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), was present.

Both Cruz’s opening and closing remarks were bizarre. During his opening remarks Cruz claimed that he was concerned about the growing “vilification” of police, as well as seeing the police “undermined.” He claimed that police had expressed fear about “engaging” in “proactive policing” because they might have their careers ruined, be “hung out to dry,” and see their “family subject to personal condemnation.” Cruz followed up with “we know that if police are scared, if they are intimidated, if they are afraid to do their jobs what the result is. The result is the loss of life. The result is the loss of life.”

The problem with this narrative, at least for those like Cruz, is that police in general really don’t like it. Let’s be clear: police chiefs and organizations representing police have made terrible comments about the Black Lives Matter movement and seem hostile to scrutiny of their actions. Police don’t reject this narrative out of a particular affinity for protesters or police reform movements. They reject it because the underlying message is that crime is up because police are not doing their jobs. Think about it for a moment. Who does such a narrative reflect more poorly on? Black Lives Matter? Or the people to afraid of peaceful protesters to do their job causing a surge in homicides?

That the police don’t like this narrative was abundantly clear during the panel. Ranking member Coons pointed out that the head of the Fraternal Order of Police, no friend of the Black Lives Matter movement, is less than thrilled with it. The only two panelists with any background in law enforcement–Ronald L. Davis and Dr. Cedric L. Alexander–both asserted that police were not afraid to do their jobs. One even stressed to the panel “police are not cowards.” Both police panelists asserted there was no Ferguson effect, noting that crime was down in some cities and up in others—and nobody really knew the reason. This point was illuminated particularly well when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) claimed a friend told him that because of the federal government, as well as “marches and protests,” police were now “sitting under the shade tree.” While Sessions might hear such remarks as a potshot at White House, all the police hear is about they lounging about under trees as opposed to doing their jobs.

The Obama Administration Needs Congressional Oversight. Just Not This Kind…

It is tough to tell what motivated this hearing. Certainly there is a growing attempt to chill the speech of Black Lives Matters activists by pinning police deaths and high crime rates on them. Comments about “marches and protests,” “difficulties in the streets,” and “minority community activists” who “demand action” certainly seem like attempts to demonize the Black Lives Matter movement. The subtitle “How The Federal Government Undermines Local Enforcement” reveals that the real target here was the Obama Administration. There is plenty to criticize about the Obama Administration’s record on civil liberties and it is Congress’s job to oversee the Executive, but to suggest that Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder are actively undermining the police, because they hold the same views as the “anarchists” who protested the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention is not one such criticism. Such a view borders on conspiracy theory.

As part of documenting this anarchist plot against the police, Cruz during both his opening and closing remarks made reference after reference to Debo Adegbile. Adegbile was the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund was involved in Mumia Abu Jamal’s appeals concerning the unconstitutional process by which he was sentenced to death. A district court judge overturned the sentence in 2001, a three-judge panel in the Third Circuit unanimously approved this in 2008, in 2010 the Supreme Court ordered the Third Circuit to rehear the case and in 2011 the Third Circuit reaffirmed their decision. Mumia’s sentence was changed to life in prison in 2011. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund involvement in all of this consisted of in filing an amicus brief in 2009 in support of Mumia’s psoition, and in 2011 the NAACP Legal Defense Fund became his co-counsel.

When Adegbile was nominated to be the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Divisions, the Fraternal Organization of Police objected to his nomination since he had caused Mumia’s “just” death sentence to be undone (that four federal judges had found it to be unconstitutional prior to the NAACP even getting involved was not mentioned) and the Senate rejected him for these imprudent reasons.

Cruz did not mention this lengthy back-story nor did he even mention Adegbile by name. Instead, he kept repeating that Obama had nominated someone who had defended a “cop killer.” Just to make sure that everyone understands Cruz believes in the right to counsel, he stressed that it was ok to represent someone, but Adegbile had gone too far since he had done so pro bono. Who one represents pro bono, Cruz insisted, says a lot about who they are and what they think. It remains unclear however what Cruz thinks of what Chief Justice John Roberts’ pro bono representation of convicted serial killer John Ferguson says about his views.

Per Cruz Mumia Abu Jamal is not the only convicted “cop killer” Obama supports—he also supports Assata Shakur. Both Asatta and Mumia were involved in black liberation movements before their convictions and both maintain their innocence. Civil liberties and human rights groups, including those not taking positions on their guilt or innocence, have noted serious problems with their convictions.  This was not a spur of the moment aside for Cruz. As C-SPAN camera panned the room revealing only one other Senator there before focusing on the helplessly trapped panel, delivered an elongated monologue about Assata. What did this have to do with anything? Cruz had just finished an equally tiresome tirade about how Obama had embrace Cuba in a way made “every leftist faculty lounge cheer.” Assata, in spite of being added during the Obama Administration to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list over a forty-year old conviction, lives in Cuba, which considers her a political refugee and refuses to extradite her. Cruz announced that police officers felt thrown under the bus, because no one believes Obama asked his “Communist friends Raul and Fidel” for extradition. Note Cruz di not say Obama did not do this or would not do this, but nobody even believes he would. The mere fact that Cruz repeated his claims about police being intimidated causing a crime wave after two different witnesses with law enforcement backgrounds objecting to it shows that his televised speechifying was not contingent on fact.

Obama isn’t just undermining the police; he is also encouraging young people to use drugs

According to one Senator, Obama had claimed “drugs” were the same as alcohol and tobacco thus causing a rise in teenage drug use. One panelist John P. Walters, a former drug czar (a tough position he explained since “The drug Czar is not a hip guy at parties or on campus.”) lamented this. Obama, per Walter, had a unique relationship with young people, which could have made him “more powerful than Nancy Reagan” in deterring youth drug use. Instead, he is promoting drug use. Walters informed the committee that the high death rates due to drug overdoses amongst baby boomers is directly the result of youth marijuana use, which changes the brain chemistry making one more prone to addiction to other drugs.

There are so many other lowlights from this hearing it is hard to detail them all

At one point during the first panel, Sen. Mike Lee went on a random transphobic aside about the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights finding that the Township School District’s treatment of a transgender student violated Title IX. No one from the Department of Education was on the panel and his questions were instead directed at Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, United States Department of Justice. When Gupta explained that the matter had no been referred to the Department of Justice, they had not been in contact with the Department of Education, and she could not give an opinion on it since the Department of Justice was still deliberating as to what their opinions on the subject were Lee insisted Gupta answer his question based solely on his description of the issue. When Gupta again explained she could not give an opinion until the Department of Justice was done deliberating on the matter Lee informed her that he was shocked and that she would have to answer to the parents of America.

One witness, Heather Mac Donald told a story about how a woman from the Bronx “spontaneously” exclaimed during a meeting “How lovely when I say the police, they are my friends!” Mac Donald also claimed that no one was more dedicated to the proposition “Black Lives Matter” than the police and not only endorsed the notion of a Ferguson Effect, but attempted to take personal credit for it. Mac Donald also insisted that disproportionate incarceration rates of African-Americans was simply, because of their “elevated crime records.” Finally, she blamed Obama for endorsing the “thesis” that police were racist, as opposed to “rebutting” the Black Lives Matter movement She warned that people are “more likely to resist arrest” when they “believe the police are racist.” Another witness, Andrew C. McCarthy, continued this general theme by noting that based on the amount of crimes African-Americans commit the number stopped is too low not too high.

The end take away is that there is no war on police. There is, however, a war on reality by politicians looking for any chance to bloviate before the C-SPAN cameras, as well as by those who wish to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement. The real point, however, was to engage in a form of hyper partisanship that decides to substitute taking cheap shots at the Obama Administration by advancing wacky conspiracy theories as opposed to engaging actual oversight. This is unfortunate, because given their record on civil liberties, the Obama Administration, much like the police, is sorely in need of actual oversight. Something Congress is clearly unwilling to provide.