Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of existing federal consent decrees with respect to troubled police departments. Sessions’s legal memorandum is right that primary responsibility for dysfunctional police agencies resides with local officials–mayors, police chiefs, and city councils. Those officials too often deflect criticism of their oversight failures with loud calls for a “federal investigation.” When the feds announce their intervention, attention shifts to what the federal findings and recommendations may be later on. For example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was under heavy fire after the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting was disclosed. By agreeing to a federal investigation, Emanuel survived, at least temporarily.
Some on the right mistakenly believe that the Obama administration was “anti-police” and that the DOJ investigations exhibited some sort of bias against law enforcement. Not true. Sessions is making a grave mistake if he thinks previous DOJ investigations did not uncover severe problems in American policing. The problems are there. The real question is how to address them. In the education area, teacher unions are the main obstacles to reform. Police unions are the major obstacle to sensible accountability measures for police organizations. But over the long run, local mayors and city councils must make a sustained commitment to proper oversight of police. It is unrealistic to expect the Attorney General or a federal monitor to do their jobs.