Attorney General William Barr showed a bad grasp of history and modern thinking with his veiled warning to communities not to criticize the police. His comments Tuesday at an event in Washington, D.C., show a tin ear to the committed efforts by law enforcement agencies across the nation to improve relations with the communities they serve. They also ignore the Justice Department’s own commendable history — especially in the South — of professionalizing local police agencies and bringing them into the modern age.
Barr made his remarks — of all places — at an awards ceremony honoring officers — in part for their success in community policing. He noted that some Vietnam War veterans, upon returning home, bore the brunt of Americans’ opposition to the war, and that it took decades for the nation to realize “the respect and gratitude owed them was not given.”
Turning to today, Barr likened the criticisms of police to the treatment of those veterans. And he said communities must be more supportive of police or risk losing protection. “They have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves,” Barr said. “And if communities don’t give that support and respect, they may find themselves without the police protection they need.”
There is no parallel between America’s division over Vietnam and protests in some cities today over allegations of police misconduct. The returning veterans were wrongly pilloried for carrying out official government policy. Yet the protests today are directed at specific incidents of outlier behavior by individual officers in distinct cities. To equate the two and to conflate concern over police misconduct with contempt for law enforcement paints a false picture of what’s going on.
Take a recent example in Tampa. The city drew fire after a 2015 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that Tampa police were disproportionately stopping and citing black bicyclists. The Times analyzed more than 10,000 bicycle tickets Tampa police issued in the past dozen years and found that even though blacks make up about a quarter of the city’s population, they received 79% of the bike tickets. The uproar prompted the city to change course. The police chief at the time, Jane Castor, later admitted it was a mistake. In April, she was overwhelmingly elected mayor.
Police agencies throughout the region and the country have worked for years to build stronger relationships in their communities. They recognize the actions of a single officer can taint an entire force. Rather than turn their backs on complaints, local agencies have largely been out front. And their leaders have set high disciplinary standards that foster confidence in the community.
Barr’s comments also diminish his department’s legacy of rooting out corruption and abuse by local law enforcement for decades. The federal government’s steady hand has been instrumental in professionalizing local law enforcement, especially during the segregationist period in the South. Even in 2016, the Justice Department helped Tampa recover from its biking-while-black scandal, issuing a series of recommendations that it shared with 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation. That’s the sense of duty by those in uniform the attorney general apparently missed.