Alternative Fact of the Week: Sessions gets Baltimore all wrong

Our view: It isn’t just that the attorney general gets his facts wrong about Baltimore’s consent decree, he’s fundamentally mistaken about such agreements

It’s not easy being Jeff Sessions. About that there can be little doubt. Serving as the nation’s top law enforcement official is a tough job, particularly when your boss dislikes you. Make that loathes you: “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad,” President Donald Trump told a TV interviewer on Tuesday. The president wants Mr. Sessions to ignore his oath of office and, instead of protecting the interests of the American people, start looking out for the president, his family, his associates and perhaps any other co-conspirators who might pop up. Specifically, the president would like Mr. Sessions to give the heave-ho to special counsel Robert Mueller and the investigation into Russian interference in the last election. Mr. Sessions, who may take the whole oath thing more seriously than that, has balked — at least so far.

But that doesn’t mean Mr. Sessions isn’t capable of proffering his own misrepresentations, gross distortions and yes, alternative facts. He peddled hard in that direction Wednesday when he spoke to a group of law enforcement officials in Waukegan, Ill., pointing a finger directly at Baltimore. His charge? That the city’s choice to enter into a consent decree with the American Civil Liberties Union had caused a reduction in arrest rates but raised crime rates including rape.

The first problem with that charge is that Baltimore didn’t enter into a consent decree with the ACLU; the agreement was with Mr. Session’s own Department of Justice, and it wasn’t finalized until after Mr. Sessions was confirmed as attorney general. The second is that he grossly distorts the numbers, especially rapes. The Baltimore Sun’s Ian Duncan reports the distortion may be because Mr. Sessions appears to have confused Baltimore City with Baltimore County. But the third misrepresentation is easily the most worrisome of all: Mr. Sessions continues his fallacious and dangerous assertion that stop-and-frisk tactics and other heavy-handed forms of policing that discriminate against minorities constitute effective policing. That’s not only untrue, it’s ridiculous on its face.

In his speech, Mr. Sessions once again pointed to a faulty University of Utah analysis that blamed a spike in Chicago murders on a settlement with the ACLU. (In this case, the settlement actually involved the civil rights organization.) And while both things happened, a causal relationship isn’t established. There are any number of other communities that have ended stop-and-frisk practices, like New York, and watched violent crime rates fall. Philadelphia, Seattle and Newark, N.J., dropped such practices without an increase in homicides, as well. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas looked at the issue more broadly, studying 23 police departments that have agreed to consent decrees since 1990 and came up with an obvious benefit — fewer civil rights lawsuits aimed at those departments. And that’s no small thing given the payouts Baltimore and other cities have had to make to individuals who have been mistreated by police.

The attorney general speaks dismissively of Black Lives Matter and the ACLU. But what happens when police departments treat individuals as “suspicious” because of the color of their skin? You get a distinct lack of cooperation with investigators and a failure of witnesses to step forward. That doesn’t help solve crimes, it represents a poisoning of community relations that is antithetical to good police practices. Don’t listen to us. The AG should listen to the chiefs of major cities like Miami, Cleveland and New Orleans that are dealing with these issues every day. All are working under reform agreements monitored by a federal judge.

Finally, just because a consent decree has been agreed upon doesn’t mean the crime problem is fixed. It’s more a like a reform road map has been acquired; there are challenges ahead and trust to be restored. As we’ve often noted on this page in the difficult times since the death of Freddie Gray, there is an entire culture to reverse, one that took years to develop. We would implore Mr. Sessions to visit Baltimore and walk the streets of any neighborhood that is doing its best to address violent crime. City residents are looking for a partner in the police department, not a step back in time to tactics that did so much damage in the first place.

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