Pledging money, research and expertise for local law enforcement, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions brought a face to the Trump administration’s pro-police message during a speech Friday in St. Louis.
He also made general mention of the 2014 unrest in Ferguson after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white officer, and the tensions between police and African-Americans.
Outside, dozens of protesters expressed their frustration with Sessions’ alleged ties to Russia. The former U.S. senator from Alabama recused himself in early March from any investigation concerning Russia’s possible influence on the 2016 presidential elections.
The crowd inside the Thomas F. Eagleton federal courthouse included local police chiefs, prosecutors and the heads of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Agency in St. Louis.
“All of us in law enforcement want to keep our communities safe, plain and simple,” Sessions told them. “For many of you and your staff, you take the extra step of putting your lives on the line with that traffic stop, that search warrant, that response to a disturbance in a home and making arrests. So we are all disturbed to learn that violent crime is on the rise in our country.”
Violent crime remains well below where it was a decade ago, and Sessions acknowledged rates are at historic lows. But the Trump administration has seized on a small increase between 2014 and 2015, which Sessions said “risks losing the hard-won gains that have made our country safer and more prosperous, and you will not have prosperity if your communities aren’t safe.”
He also pledged to use “every lawful tool” to help cities get the most violent of their criminals of the streets.
“The more people that have proven they are dangerous, that they are lawless and violent, that are in the slammer, the fewer people are going to get killed,” Sessions said. “It’s just plain mathematics.”
Sessions met with law enforcement officials after his speech. St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson said the attorney general told them that departments should not expect a large influx of federal money to help hire officers. But, Dotson said, Sessions promised that federal agencies like the FBI, DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will step into the gap.
“If we get the same results by increased focus by the federal agencies, I’m for that too,” Dotson said.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said he appreciated that Sessions took the time to come talk to officials in St. Louis. Crime looks different here than it does in New York or Los Angeles, he said.
And, he added, it was a nice boost to the morale of rank-and-file officers.
"We're pretty pragmatic as chiefs, but if you're the officers out there on the streets, you want to hear that support from the federal government," Belmar said.
Sessions attributed much of the increase in violent crime to the drug cartels bringing heroin into the country, a segment of the speech that at times was reminiscent of 1980s anti-drug campaigns, as he encouraged parents to “talk to our children correctly” and prevent them from being “seduced into this devastating disease of addiction.”
Sessions acknowledged that the strained relationship between law enforcement and people of color — highlighted by Brown’s death — can and must be improved, though he did not specifically mention the findings of his department’s own report on the city.
“You are one community altogether, and what’s not healthy for one area diminishes us all,” he said.
But, he also laid some of the blame for the increase in crime at the feet of those tensions, or what’s sometimes called the “Ferguson effect.”
“In some cities, arrests have fallen substantially because of pressure not to overreact even as murder rates in those cities are going up substantially,” he said. “This is not a good trend.”
Sessions, however, pledged that the Department of Justice would continue to fulfill his role in fixing police misconduct, though he made sure to add that “most of them men and women in law enforcement are good and decent people.”
The Justice Department’s commitment to police reforms is being watched closely in Ferguson, which is operating its police department and courts under a 2016 federal consent decree. But Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss said he isn’t concerned.
“I’ve been working with the DOJ. We meet on a weekly basis. They remain as committed as they’ve always been to the reforms that we agreed upon, and that work hasn’t stopped.”
In the hour before Sessions’ arrival, dozens of protesters stood outside of the courthouse, many holding signs that called the attorney general a racist, a traitor, a liar or some combination of the three.
Several addressed Sessions’ conversations with the Russian ambassador that occurred before Trump won in November. Kathleen Pszonka, 69, a resident of Fenton, held a sign with Russian letters that translated to “Resign Russian traitor.”
“He lied to us during his hearings to get into this administration,” Pszonka said. “He lied twice that he didn’t have any collusion with the Russians and that was proved wrong.”
Others were concerned about allegations of racism that cost Sessions a federal judgeship in 1986, which referred to disparaging remarks he made about civil rights organizations and jokes about the Klu Klux Klan.
“Jeff Sessions is, from what I can tell personally, a racist,” said Mitch Eagles, 25. “He supports policies that are racist and St. Louis has been trying to fix a lot of these problems. I don’t think he is going to be supportive of those. He’s just not what I want our city to be seeing.”
Eli Chen and Marie Schwartz contributed.
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