Bill Barr’s troubling view of law enforcement

Attorney General William Barr used a Justice Department speech to lay out a troubling vision for who deserves police protection.
Attorney General William Barr used a Justice Department speech to lay out a troubling vision for who deserves police protection.Drew Angerer/Getty

Attorney General Bill Barr’s bizarre, ugly perspective on policing was on full display again last week.

At a ceremony honoring police officers at the Justice Department, he started with a standard-issue conservative complaint that America’s cops don’t get enough recognition. But then he went a step further, suggesting that insufficient veneration is an excuse for police to stop doing their jobs. If “communities” don’t start showing the kind of “respect and support that law enforcement deserves," said the attorney general, "they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

Barr made no reference to the disrespect shown by the most powerful political leader in Washington — a president who has regularly obstructed justice; referred to federal law enforcement officials as “dirty cops”; and called the former leader of the FBI “crooked” and a “total sleaze.”


Instead, we can surmise that he was talking about communities of color — especially those with the audacity to complain about police brutality.

This kind of hardline rhetoric from Barr is not new. In a speech earlier this year, he called out “anti-law enforcement DAs” who “style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers” by allegedly “letting criminals off the hook,” “refusing to enforce the law,” and “seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient.”

Even more upsetting are people who don’t comply with police orders. In the same speech Barr called for “zero tolerance for resisting police” and said public figures — including some in the media — should make clear that Americans must “comply first" with the police and "complain later.” He bemoaned the fact that "whenever there is a confrontation involving the use of force by police,” people "automatically start screaming for the officers’ scalps, regardless of the facts.”

Barr appears less concerned about the estimated 850 people who have been shot and killed by police officers already in 2019; or the fact that black Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans.


Barr has left little doubt that he believes it is the responsibility of individual citizens to avoid being killed by the police — that the onus is not on those trained to protect and serve.

Unfortunately, we know how Barr’s prescription for communities and elected officials who demand police accountability can play out. After six officers were charged in the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, police staged what became known as a “pullback” — or a retreat from anything but the most bare-boned policing. The result was an increase in lawlessness that four years later has yet to abate. By Barr’s logic, such unprofessionalism is an appropriate comeuppance for those who question the police’s actions.

Once conservatives complained about the overweening power of the state; now they demand subservience to it.

It’s easy to chalk that up to the authoritarian mindset that pervades the upper rungs of the Trump administration. It’s hardly a surprise that a president who has issued pardons for members of the military who have been convicted of war crimes would have an attorney general who believes that the actions of police officers should largely go unquestioned.

But it also speaks to a broader disconnect between law enforcement and communities of color — and a fundamental failure to appreciate the concerns of those who take the brunt of policing.


The divide is unmistakable in the new film “Queen and Slim," which tells the story of a Black couple who go on the lam after killing a bullying and trigger-happy white police officer in an act of self-defense. It captures a mindset that our attorney general seemingly cannot imagine — one in which fear of the police is real.

As the film’s co-screenwriter, Lena Waithe noted in a recent interview, for people who “aren’t black, aren’t brown, it’s a thing that may be difficult for them to relate to . . . I’m gonna put them in our shoes and say, ‘This is how it feels.'”

The constant threat of unprovoked police violence that hangs over the film can feel overdone at times. But to deny its existence is to deny reality. There is a reason, after all, that only one-third of Black Americans have confidence in the police.

Of course, not all officers are racists or bullies. Most do their job with professionalism and honor. But racism is endemic to American policing — even though Barr has argued otherwise.

And the notion that the police are somehow beyond scrutiny is not only delusional, it’s un-American.

No one in this country should be considered above the law — and certainly no one should be required to “support” the police in order to be protected by them. That this needs to be explained to the nation’s most powerful law enforcement official is unsurprising, perhaps. But that doesn’t make it any less deplorable.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.