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Head of Black policing group confronts Barr over denial of systemic racism in law enforcement

Posted August 12, 2020 4:53 p.m. EDT

— The head of a national Black policing group confronted Attorney General William Barr over his denial of the existence of systemic racism in law enforcement on Monday at a meeting at the Justice Department.

In a closed-door gathering of national law enforcement leaders, Lynda Williams, the president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, raised the issue and said that it was something that she's felt firsthand throughout her career.

"I challenged him respectfully to think differently because just because you have not experienced that, it does exist," Williams, a former Georgia deputy sheriff who climbed the ranks at the US Secret Service, said in an interview.

The encounter, which has not been previously disclosed, is one of the most direct and personal disagreements the attorney general has faced as he's steered the Justice Department through the national reckoning over the intertwined history of racism and policing that was spurred by George Floyd's killing in police custody in May.

Barr has consistently rejected the idea that racism is embedded in the country's police forces, even as the Justice Department has taken over responsibility for implementing the Trump administration's police reform effort.

In interviews and congressional testimony in recent weeks, Barr has acknowledged that Black communities face unfair levels of scrutiny by authorities but called it an "oversimplification" to ascribe that treatment to an institutionalized problem among officers.

For criminal justice advocates and detractors of the administration, Barr's stance on the phenomenon is the chief illustration of his regressive position on policing, and Democrats have recently questioned his sources of information on the topic.

"You seem to have a difficult time understanding systemic racism and institutional racism that has plagued so many," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, told Barr as he testified before the House Judiciary Committee late last month.

When Barr offered up a statistic in a different part of the hearing that showed that the number of unarmed White men that had been killed by police this year outpaced the number of unarmed Black men, at 11 to eight, Rep. Cedric Richmond disputed its accuracy and relevance. Barr had neglected to account for the disparity in population size between the two groups, which would have showed that Black men were disproportionately killed.

Richmond also doubted the diversity of voices that Barr was hearing from, and asked the attorney general to report to him with data on the number of African Americans within the top ranks of the department.

"When you all came in and brought your top staff, you brought no Black people," the Louisiana Democrat told Barr. "That, sir, is systematic racism."

Steady positions

On Monday, responding to Williams, whose nearly 30 years at the Secret Service included stints in White House protective details and leadership positions in Washington and South Africa, Barr's answer was lengthy and thoughtful, according to another police official in the room, who said it appeared the attorney general had spent time grappling with the topic. It mirrored his public explanations of his position, which have emphasized the changes that police departments have undergone since the civil rights movement, like increasing diversity.

Barr at one point asked Williams if there was systemic racism within every law enforcement agency and they both agreed that there wasn't -- a consensus that a Justice Department official underscored when asked for comment on the encounter. But Williams responded that its presence is widespread, as law enforcement is reflective of American society, and shared with him her experiences combating it in supervisors and training her colleagues to understand it.

"I think he whether he totally agreed or disagreed, it doesn't really matter. I wanted to put it out there to make him go, 'Hmmm,' and so that this conversation could continue," said Williams, whose organization counts 3,000 members from local and federal police forces across the world.

Barr's views on crimefighting have remained mostly steady since his first stint atop the Justice Department in the George H.W. Bush administration, when he signed on to a report titled "The Case for More Incarceration," which captured the harsh law-and-order policy of the era, now viewed by criminal justice advocates on both sides of the aisle as unscientific and prejudiced.

His policy efforts on the subject have also echoed between his two tenures: A Justice Department initiative to target gun crimes with federal resources that he launched in his first go-round was revived in his current term, and some of the advisers on the topic that he had in the early 1990s remain in his inner circle today.

Among his close aides, Barr's primary policing counsels have been longtime associates with ties to the law enforcement community. Jeff Favitta, Barr's senior law enforcement adviser, is a former FBI official, and Tim Shea, who advised Barr on policing issues before being installed as the chief federal prosecutor in Washington, DC, earlier this year, comes from a family of first responders.

In recent days, Chuck Canterbury, a longtime police officer and former president of the national Fraternal Order of Police, was hired to advise the deputy attorney general on law enforcement matters. Canterbury's nomination to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was scuttled this year after some Republicans signaled their disagreement with him on Second Amendment issues.

Barr's chief of staff, Will Levi, has experience working on criminal justice reform efforts and oversaw a legislative push for prison reform as the chief counsel to GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.

Barr engages often with national law enforcement unions and associations, like the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and earlier this year stood up a diverse council of police leaders to study trends in crime and ways to curb them. A 15-chapter draft report from the policing commission was completed earlier this summer and is expected to be presented formally to President Donald Trump in the fall, according to people familiar with the matter.

"Legitimate" concerns

Since Floyd's death, Barr has allowed for slight shifts in his view on race and policing, saying that the killing had "driven home" a breakdown in the criminal justice system that disfavored African Americans. After traveling to South Carolina last month to meet with leaders at a historically Black church and law enforcement officials alongside Sen. Tim Scott, the Senate's only Black Republican, who led a failed effort at police reform legislation, Barr relayed Scott's numerous experiences of being "unjustifiably pulled over" by police in his opening address to the House Judiciary Committee.

"I think these concerns are legitimate," Barr told lawmakers.

"At the same time," he continued, "I think it would be an oversimplification to treat the problem as rooted in some deep-seated racism generally infecting our police departments. It seems far more likely that the problem stems from a complex mix of factors, which can be addressed with focused attention over time."

The Justice Department is beginning to set up the framework for the limited set of fixes that emerged from Washington in response to the nationwide protests sparked by Floyd's killing.

Barr told the law enforcement leaders on Monday that the department is aiming to implement policies outlined in an executive order on police reform signed by Trump in June, including the establishment of a database to track officers who are fired or found in court to have used excessive force, by the fall.

For Williams, the president of the black policing organization, who was one of only a handful of Black people in the meeting, Barr's efforts will remain misguided until his view on systemic racism lines up with her experience.

"As our lead law enforcement executive, you've got to cater to everyone. You can't cater to some just because you don't understand the others," she said.

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