Americans got an indication of the Justice Department’s upcoming agenda when President Trump signed three executive orders at the Oval Office swearing-in ceremony of new Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday.
Trump’s orders aim to stop crime, prevent violence against law enforcement, and crack down on drug cartels. But none of the orders implement immediate changes, and it’s not clear what their ultimate impact will be. In addition, criminologists with whom VICE News spoke expressed a fair amount of skepticism.
“It sounds good, and no one wants to be against promoting public safety and reducing crime,” said Philip Stinson, associate professor of criminology at Bowling Green State University. “But it is nothing more than symbolic crime control rhetoric.”
An order on “Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers” directs Sessions and the DOJ to review federal laws to determine whether they need to be strengthened, and suggests as potential methods the defining of all new crimes and the raising of mandatory minimum sentences for people who commit or attempt to commit acts of violence against police. The order does not directly address a federal “Blue Lives Matter” law, versions of which have been pushed by the Fraternal Order of Police.
Another order directs Sessions to assemble a task force to strategize how to reduce crime — “in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime.” The task force is also meant to assess the “availability and adequacy” of crime data, and troubleshoot ways to improve data gathering “in a manner that will aid in the understanding of crime trends.”
Seth Stoughton, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former law enforcement officer, said that the best-case scenario is that Sessions assembles a task force including individuals who “represent a diverse range of perspectives” and crime data methodology experts. Worst-case scenario, Stoughton said, “is the possibility that the task force will be used as political window-dressing to justify whatever policies the administration decides on.”
“I find it rather ironic that the administration is emphasizing the need for reliable data given both the relatively robust crime data that we already have and the president’s unwillingness to accept the validity of data that doesn’t confirm his positions,” Stoughton said.
Sessions and Trump have both been vocal about their belief that the United States is currently enduring extremely high levels of crime, and have vowed to bring law and order to the nation’s cities. Murders did spike by 10 percent between 2014 and 2015 (when the most recent data is available), marking a six-year high. But that increase doesn’t reflect a broader decades-long downward trend. Nationwide there were 4.9 murders per 100,000 people in 2015; for comparison’s sake, rates peaked in the 1990s at almost 10 murders per 100,000 people.
Earlier this week, Trump falsely said that murder rates were at a 47-year high. And during his swearing-in on Thursday, Sessions described the recent uptick in crime as a “dangerous permanent trend that places the safety of the American people at risk.”
“This is more evidence the administration’s crime-control rhetoric is designed to fuel a moral panic, even though the data continue to show that there are no dangerous permanent trends of crime increasing across the country,” Stinson said. “It is utter bullshit.”