The eventual role that Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker may play in the Department of Justice is uncertain, but thanks to his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, successors will inherit an agency that enjoys deep support within law enforcement circles. More than two dozen Justice Department officials and law enforcement officers said in recent interviews that no recent attorney general was as appreciated within their community as Sessions, the 71-year-old former senator from Alabama, who was fired the day after the midterm elections, presumably for having recused himself from supervising the DOJ's inquiry into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
"The message he repeated at every opportunity when speaking to law enforcement officers was 'we have your back, and you have our thanks,'" said Steven H. Cook, the associate deputy attorney general and the department's liaison to state and local police throughout the country. That message, in word and deed, resonated forcefully. "Sessions was widely perceived as the most pro-law enforcement attorney general in years," said John Costanzo, a former DEA agent and president of the Association of Retired Agents, which represents some 1,100 former officials.
Most of Sessions's priorities mirrored those of his former boss, President Donald Trump. In interviews during his last week in office, Sessions said that it was then-candidate Trump's strong support for curbing illegal immigration and reducing violent crime—two of his own longstanding goals—that prompted him to be the first senator to endorse Trump's then-longshot presidential bid.
What one thinks of Sessions's legacy at Justice depends largely on what one thinks of this agenda. Democrats and other liberal activists, while applauding Sessions for having given Robert Mueller free rein in the Russia investigation, vigorously assailed his tough immigration and law-and-order policies. They also criticized his threats to cut federal funds to sanctuary cities, his embrace of a zero-tolerance policy toward immigrants crossing the U.S.–Mexico border illegally, and his willingness to separate parents from their children at the border. They denounced his decision to require prosecutors to seek maximum charges and sentences against repeat drug offenders, and even the death penalty in some drug-trafficking cases, which reversed one of President Obama's most prominent bipartisan policies. They accused him of slow-rolling investigations of local police brutality, ignoring transgender civil rights, and going easy on white-collar financial crimes, to say nothing of failing to endorse restrictions on assault weapons and other gun control measures, which many police organizations favor. "In immigration, transgender rights, and his other efforts to curb civil rights and liberties," said Lawrence Goldstone, who writes about legal and constitutional issues," Sessions consistently used the power of his department to intervene against minorities, the weak, and the powerless."
However, law enforcement officials charged with preventing, responding to, and punishing crime on the streets supported Sessions's tough-on-crime policies, and they credit his work with impressive drops in crime. Though overall crime rates have been dropping throughout the U.S. over the past 20 years, the rate of violent crime in the last two years of the Obama administration rose by nearly 7 percent. Assaults increased by nearly 10 percent and rape by nearly 11 percent. But during Sessions's tenure, according to the latest FBI data, violent crime and murder rates declined. In a speech to Utah law enforcement officials in October, Sessions cited a study predicting that the murder rate in the nation's 29 biggest cities would go down by as much as 7.6 percent this year, bringing it back to 2015 levels.
In 2018, the DOJ prosecuted more violent criminals than in any other year on record, charging more people than ever before with federal firearm violations. "Fully 41 percent more gun defendants were prosecuted in fiscal year 2017 than they were just five years before," Sessions said in a recent speech. And in the fiscal year ending October 1, the department brought charges against 15 percent more violent crime defendants than in the previous, record-breaking year. While critics accuse Sessions of having just "chased numbers," local and state law enforcement officials believe that restoring their ability to target people they regard as the most dangerous gun-holders has helped keep their towns and cities safe.
Another popular move with cops, sheriffs, and police departments was Sessions's opposition to several of the 20 settlements that the DOJ has been enforcing with state and local police to address well-documented complaints about police bias, brutality, and other forms of abuse. Among them are 14 court-enforced consent decrees with local police in such cities as Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Seattle, and infamously, Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2014. Consent decrees and other court-blessed agreements aim to end supposed patterns of police abuses and eliminate bias in their departments, but Sessions had long argued that they usurped state and local policing prerogatives.
Last year, Sessions unsuccessfully challenged a consent decree in Baltimore put into place in 2017 after the 2015 death in a police van of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American, which triggered riots, looting, and violence. In response to evidence of police brutality and the Baltimore PD's well-documented pattern of abuses, city leadership signed a consent decree. Afterward, the average number of field interviews conducted by police plunged by 70 percent, and arrests on outstanding warrants dropped by half. Homicides increased by 62.5 percent, rape more than tripled, and car theft and aggravated assault rose by one-third, the Justice Department says. Amid generally encouraging national crime statistics, Baltimore has been a disturbing outlier.
Sessions also complained about what he called a "catastrophic" consent decree in Chicago, one that will endure long after Rahm Emanuel, the outgoing Democratic mayor who endorsed it, leaves office. The 2015 agreement between Chicago and the ACLU was struck after Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African-American, was fatally shot by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. The release of video camera footage 13 months later showed that McDonald had been walking away from the police, not toward them, as they initially alleged. A Justice Department report in January 2017 described a Chicago police culture of "excessive violence," especially against minority suspects, and pointed to poor training and supervision. Justice Department and city officials signed a consent decree that laid out a plan for police improvement, to be overseen by the courts.
Sessions argued that the agreement prevented Chicago cops from conducting constitutionally valid stops, and from engaging in other police procedures aimed at reducing crime. Chicago police now must file detailed reports on each such stop with the ACLU and a former federal judge overseeing the agreement. Stops declined by 75 percent in 2016, after the agreement took effect, and the Chicago police made 24 percent fewer arrests than in 2015, and about half as many arrests as in 2011. "If you don't stop people," Sessions warned, "you don't find illegal guns or fugitives." That same year, he noted, Chicago experienced its biggest increase in murders since the department began collecting crime statistics. Some 765 people were killed in Chicago in 2016; whereas over the previous ten years, the average total was 454. More people were murdered in Chicago in 2016 than in New York and Los Angeles combined, though Chicago has one-fifth their total population; 94 percent of the victims were African-American and Latino.
The morning he was fired, Sessions signed a memorandum limiting the use of these decrees, a move condemned by civil rights groups and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. But several law enforcement officials applauded Sessions's last act as attorney general. Andrew Lelling, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, who began resolving patterns of police abuses while working in the Bush administration, said that a "collaborative approach" by the DOJ was almost always more productive than a forced agreement. "Most police officers are professionals who are concerned about rogue cops and police abuses and want to solve them," he said. "They just don't want changes and extra training shoved down their throats. You'll get to the same place without a confrontational approach, but faster, cheaper, with police and police union buy-in, and without the high fees often paid to monitors." Defenders of consent decrees say that they are the only way to assure that systemic patterns of abuse in certain police departments get addressed.
Lelling was also involved in another of Sessions's high-profile initiatives—his determination to reduce the 72,000 deaths last year from overdoses of opioids and addictive drugs, the highest drug-related death toll in American history. In May, a multi-agency anti-drug task force arrested 52 people, mostly Dominican immigrants, in a federal drug sweep called "Operation Bad Company" in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Sessions began focusing on Lawrence after being told during an early visit to Boston that opioids and heroin from this city of 80,000 were supplying half of New England. "We had sweeps there before," Lelling said, "but nothing on this scale." He praised Sessions for having remained focused on Lawrence.
The drug crackdown has led to the targeting not only of five international groups that traffic in heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, and other deadly substances—MS-13; the Sinaloa Cartel; the Clan del Golfo; Lebanon's Hezbollah; and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG, one of the largest and most powerful cartels in Mexico—but has also targeted what Sessions, when he spoke with me, called "corrupt doctors and pharmacists" peddling deadly drugs. During his tenure, the DOJ charged 226 doctors with opioid-related crimes and convicted 82 of them. Another 221 medical personnel have also been charged with opioid-related crimes. Sixteen of those doctors had illegally prescribed more than 20.3 million pills. Such targeting has already resulted in the "lowest opioid prescription rates in 18 years," he told attendees at a counter-opioid summit in Washington last month. The Justice Department has gone after cyber drug-traffickers as well. Last July, it announced the seizure of the largest dark-net marketplace in history—AlphaBay. The site, which hosted some 220,000 drug listings, was responsible for countless fentanyl overdoses.
Another source of Sessions's popularity among law enforcement was his controversial 2017 decision to end tight restrictions on civil forfeiture—the seizing of assets from criminal suspects—thus enabling law enforcement officers to strip resources, within civil liberties safeguards, from drug traffickers and perpetrators of other violent crimes. Since then, a Justice Department official said, federal forfeiture of firearms and ammunition has increased by more than 30 percent. Critics of such forfeitures have long accused the department of encouraging "policing for profit," and well-documented abuses of this practice—including the seizure of assets from people never formally charged with or convicted of a crime and the use of such assets by police for their own benefit—led former attorney general Eric Holder to clamp down on this practice. But Sessions and his staff argued that such seizures can be monitored, and that they enable cash-strapped state and local police forces to do their jobs more effectively. "This was just one example of how Sessions lifted the constraints that so frustrated so many of us battling drug cartels with limited resources," said Reeve Swainston, a former prosecutor in New Mexico. Finally, unlike President Trump, Sessions opposed legislation aimed at reducing the nation's overburdened prisons.
Jeff Sessions is gone, but his legacy at the Department of Justice in less than two years is likely to remain as powerful as it is controversial.