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Editorial: Review of policing agreements is a step back

Here’s the biggest problem with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan to review federal agreements reached with several troubled police departments: It’s rooted in denial.

These agreements were not the product of imaginary abuses. They responded to actual events that demanded intervention in a country that values the rule of law and its equal enforcement.

And, despite the predictable cheering by police unions, many department chiefs and municipal leaders involved say they will continue to abide by the agreements, whatever Sessions says. The reason? The agreements have made the police departments better. Shouldn’t the Justice Department want to support that?

In Sessions’ view, Washington should not worry when police departments violate the Constitution, apply the law unequally or otherwise undermine the trust that is necessary if police are to perform their essential duties.

Sessions seems to believe that requiring police departments to operate professionally causes crime, but that’s a fantasy straight out of Dirty Harry. Indeed, it was the demonstrably racist operations of the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department that seeded the ground for the violence that followed the shooting of a black teenager by a white officer. Michael Brown was certainly complicit in the events that led to his death, but the community’s outrage grew from the abusive policies routinely imposed by a mainly white Police Department in a largely African-American city.

That wasn’t a matter of a few bad apples. While that can certainly be a problem in some departments, in others, such as Ferguson, enforcement policies were racially motivated. Those departments don’t reform themselves; they need to be made to change and, once they do, many find they are better off for it.

Such is the case in Albuquerque, N.M., and Baltimore. In the former, Mayor Richard J. Berry told the New York Times that although he initially had reservations, he saw the consent decree as mainly positive. It may have hurt officers’ morale at first, he said, but “time and experience with it is making it less of an issue.”

In Baltimore, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said that Sessions’ request for a delay in finalizing a consent decree was “a punch in the gut to the community – certainly to me.” Sessions, he suggested, was out of step with the people of Baltimore and of law enforcement leaders across the country.

Resistance to change is common in any industry, of course. That’s human nature. But when those changes respond to real issues and are carefully drawn and implemented, they can lead to improvement and then acceptance. Case in point: Police departments that record interrogations as a precaution against wrongful convictions have reported that the policy has led to improved police work, despite sometimes fierce initial resistance.

In the end, there is no going back here. Almost every American is now armed with a cellphone camera that, as much as anything, has driven police departments to acknowledge the need to improve. If every consent order were to be abandoned, video recordings of police interactions would continue to influence public perceptions and police responses.

But it’s better just to improve performance. Instead of trying to turn back the clock, Sessions should be in the business of helping to ensure that the nation’s police departments are as professional as possible. That includes better training, appropriate equipment and standards of conduct that build trust between police departments and the communities they serve.

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