It’s not the federal government’s job to hold police departments accountable when officers kill black men.
That was the impression Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave on Wednesday when she was asked about two high-profile police killings, most recently, the death of Stephon Clark. Police in Sacramento, California, shot and killed the 22-year-old black man the night of March 18 while he was standing in his own backyard holding only an iPhone, sparking days of protests.
“Certainly a terrible incident,” Sanders replied. “This is something that is a local matter, and that’s something that we feel should be left up to the local authorities at this point in time.”
“Certainly we want to make sure that all law enforcement is carrying out the letter of the law,” Sanders replied after a reporter reminded her of the Trump administration’s promise to “weed out bad policing.”
“The president is very supportive of law enforcement. But at the same time, in these specific cases and these specific instances, those will be left up to local authorities to make that determination, and not something for the federal government to weigh in to,” she added.
Sanders was also asked about another high-profile case: the death of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2016. Earlier this week, Louisiana’s attorney general announced that the state would not be pursuing charges against the two officers involved. Last April, the Department of Justice wrapped up a 10-month investigation into Sterling’s death, which concluded that the officers didn’t violate his civil rights after shooting him multiple times at close range.
The notion that the feds shouldn’t be in the business of telling local police departments what to do matches Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ long-held law enforcement philosophy: that police misconduct is usually the fault of individual officers rather than a systematic problem. In March, however, the Mesa Police Department in Arizona confirmed that the DOJ was investigating the death of Daniel Shaver, a white man shot and killed by police in a hotel hallway as he crawled on his hands and knees and begged for his life.
During the Obama administration, the DOJ doubled down on its efforts to identify systemic problems in police departments, like racially biased practices or overreliance on use of deadly force, after several high-profile killings of black men at the hands of police triggered nationwide protests. Many of those investigations culminated in “consent decrees,” court-ordered agreements that mandated troubled police departments to implement recommended reforms by a certain date.
As an Alabama senator, Sessions was a vocal critic of Obama Administration’s policing strategy; he called it an example of federal overreach. Since becoming attorney general, Session has taken steps to dismantle the police reform framework that his predecessors had started building. He ordered a federal review of existing consent decrees, which he said were contributing to low morale among police officers.
Sessions, however, has tried to reassure skeptics by insisting that the DOJ is committed to aggressively prosecuting individual police officers who break the law.
“Just as I am committed to defending law enforcement who use deadly force while lawfully engaged in their work, I will also hold any officer responsible breaking the law,” Sessions said at a conference for black law enforcement officials in Atlanta last August.
Finally, Sanders was asked about the ongoing federal investigation into the death of Eric Garner, who asphyxiated in a police chokehold on Staten Island in July 2014. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for racial justice. The DOJ has repeatedly declined to comment on the status of the investigation.
“I’m not aware of any specific action,” Sanders replied. “Once again, these will be local matters that should be left up to the local authority.”
Cover image: Veronica Curry and other protestors crowd the entrance to the Sacramento City Hall to protest the shooting of Stephon Alonzo Clark, by a pair of Sacramento Police officers, during a demonstration, Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)