At Confirmation Hearing, Sen. Sessions Links Police Morale To Crime Spike

Jan 11, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2017 2:03 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

American police are more worried about their personal safety, and they blame the public criticism of law enforcement for that sense of insecurity. This is according to a national survey of police released today by the Pew Research Center. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, it's a point of view that is echoed by the incoming Trump administration.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The Pew survey of police is pretty wide ranging. But in this post-Ferguson era it's one stat that jumps out, the percentage of officers who've become more concerned about their safety - 93 percent. At his confirmation hearing yesterday, attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions drew a straight line between that sense of peril and public criticism of police.

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JEFF SESSIONS: We need to be sure that when we criticize law officers, it is narrowly focused on the right basis for criticism. And to smear whole departments places those officers at greater risk.

KASTE: In fact, there was a jump in the number of police killed on duty last year, and there's been a longer-term increase in the reported number of assaults on cops. But Sessions went further. He linked criticism of police to the recent spike in crime in certain cities.

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SESSIONS: Morale has been affected, and it's impacted the crime rates in Baltimore and crime rates in Chicago. I don't think there's any doubt about it.

KASTE: How does police morale affect crime rates? The Pew survey offers a possible explanation that says 72 percent of officers have now become less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious.

EUGENE O'DONNELL: Everybody knows policing knew this was going to happen. This was inevitably going to happen.

KASTE: That's Eugene O'Donnell, former NYPD, former prosecutor, now on the faculty of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He's no partisan of Jeff Sessions, but he says it is clear to him that the broad criticisms of the last couple of years have made cops less eager to do their jobs in places like Chicago.

O'DONNELL: They have no clear mandate. They have no clear mission. They believe they're not going to be supported. And their major thing you hear from the Chicago cops is stay fetal. Go fetal, stay fetal.

KASTE: With Donald Trump about to become president, that's become the ascendant narrative in American policing, that cops are going fetal because of unfair criticism, which leads to higher crime. Chicago has become this argument's case in point. But that's not entirely fair, says Lori Lightfoot. She's at the forefront of the reform efforts there.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: I mean, in Chicago, yes, arrests are down, yes, investigatory stops are down. But at the same time, they're taking off 8,000 illegal guns off the street every year. You don't do that if you're sitting back and not doing your job. So again, somewhere in the middle is where the truth lies.

KASTE: Lightfoot rejects what she calls this dichotomy, that you can't support both the police and police reform. Still, the reformers do now find themselves in an uphill battle against the idea that they have American cops under siege. Tracey Meares is a Yale law professor and a member of President Obama's police reform task force. She admits to being depressed, but she hasn't given up on the prospects for reform.

TRACEY MEARES: I think that it is fair to say that there will be less acceleration. You know, the penetration of these ideas to smaller jurisdictions probably won't happen as fast.

KASTE: But she says she doesn't think the pressure for reform is going away long term. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.