During his Senate confirmation hearing to be Attorney General of the United States on Tuesday, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions made a dubious claim that the rise in police killings, and widespread criticism of police, has led to more crime in urban centers.
Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican colleague of Sessions’ who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned Sessions’ on whether or not it was ever OK for someone to assault a police officer.
Here’s Sessions’ full response:
There’s no defense for that kind of action. And I do believe that we are failing to appreciate police officers who place their lives at risk, as this sergeant who was just killed yesterday trying to deal with a violent criminal and vindicate the law. And she was killed. That is the kind of thing that too often happens.
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. And we are seeing an increase in murder of police officers, it was up 10% last year. So I could just say, I could feel, I could feel in my bones it was going to play out in the real world when we had what I thought, oftentimes, was a legit criticism of perhaps the wrongdoing of an officer, but spilling over to a condemnation of our entire police force.
And morale has been affected. And it’s impacted the crime rates in Baltimore, crime rates in Chicago, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it, I regret that’s happening. I think it can be restored. But we need to understand the requirement that the police work with the community and be respectful of their community, but we as a nation need to respect our law officers too.
The senator's answer can be read in two ways: that the fraught relationship in urban centers like Chicago and Baltimore between law enforcement and civilians has led to an increase in violent crime, including violence against police. Or, people in Chicago and Baltimore are criticizing police, and civilians are killing cops, creating low morale in departments, which means they can't do their jobs effectively and that drives crime up. Either way, Sessions is saying that anti-police sentiment and a rise in police killings are leading to a spike in crime. And that assertion is incorrect.
First, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 64 officers died in the line of duty in 2016, a five-year high. According to this data, officers were shot by civilians across the country both in large urban centers and in small towns, too. In fact, it appears that fewer than a third of all police officers killed in the line of duty last year were killed in large urban centers.
Second, according to this CNN list of officers killed in 2016, no civilian killed an officer in Baltimore or Chicago, the two cities Sessions’ mentioned as places where crime has increased (which is right: Baltimore saw its second-deadliest year on record in 2016 and Chicago saw a reported 72% spike in homicides in 2016).
Two weeks ago, a former Chicago police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, made the same faulty point as Sessions when he blamed Black Lives Matter for Chicago’s rise in crime.
“So what’s happening, and this is ironic, is that a movement with the goal of saving black lives at this point is getting black lives taken,” he said in a radio interview, “because 80% of our murder victims here in Chicago are male blacks.” Later in the interview, McCarthy said he was “hopeful” that Sessions would “do more to empower police than President Obama’s Justice Department.”
Blaming people's animosity toward police for the rise in crimes against police is much easier than addressing the real problem in urban centers like Chicago: inequality in black communities. The Justice Department itself has held that there’s a strong connection between high rates of violence and poverty, not because black urban dwellers are senselessly pissed at the police. The Chicago Reporter found that 25% of the city’s African American residents were jobless, ranking Chicago the highest in black unemployment among the nation’s five most populous cities.
And third, Sessions’ attempt to connect police criticism and police killings also doesn’t work if you take places like New York City and Detroit, where police officers were killed in 2016, into account. In Detroit, overall crime decreased in 2016. And in New York City, crime dropped after the official end of the controversial stop-and-frisk program.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.