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Former AG Loretta Lynch On Challenges Of Police Accountability

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to return to another major story we are following - the protests in Louisville and around the country that have intensified after a grand jury indicted one former officer for wanton endangerment in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. You'll remember that she was killed in her apartment in March after police burst in with a no-knock warrant. None of the officers involved face charges over Taylor's death. And that decision has reignited debate around police accountability and reform - something a majority of Americans say they now support.

But what might surprise some is that most police say they support reform, too. According to the research for Morning Consult, a majority of officers say they support measures aimed at increased accountability and transparency like banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

So if there's broad support for reform, why is it so hard to bring about change? To help us think about this, we've called a former attorney general who investigated a number of high-profile incidents of police violence during her time in office. Loretta Lynch served as attorney general from 2015 to 2017. And she's with us now.

Attorney General Lynch, thank you so much for joining us.

LORETTA LYNCH: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So before we jump into proposed reforms, I just want to talk briefly about the indictment in the death of Breonna Taylor. As we mentioned, one former officer was indicted for wanton endangerment after shooting into neighboring apartments, but no charges were brought in connection with Breonna Taylor's death specifically. And this is noteworthy to people simply because the person that the police were looking for was already in custody and wasn't physically there.

So I just want to ask, based on your experience over a number of years, not just as attorney general of the United States but also as U.S. attorney in New York, where you also investigated a number of cases like this, you just - what are your thoughts about this?

LYNCH: You know, Michel, I think this case of Ms. Breonna Taylor reflects a tragedy on two levels - first, the tremendous tragedy of the loss of her life at the hands of the police. And whenever that occurs under any circumstances, it's a tragedy because it does erode trust. It does erode people's faith in law enforcement as a force that will protect them as opposed to place them in harm's way.

But it's also a tragedy of the larger system. When you think about the immediate case, for example, a number of people are very, very hurt and very concerned over the fact that officers were not charged for Breonna Taylor's death. But the law, at least in Kentucky, as outlined by the Kentucky attorney general, says that because her boyfriend fired first - admittedly in self-defense, and he will not be charged, although he was mistakenly initially charged - that's another major flaw here - because he fired, the police had the right to fire back.

They believed themselves to be under attack, and they had the right to respond. And you'll find that in a number of jurisdictions, this concept that if the police believe that either they or their fellow officers' lives are in danger, they have a right to self-defense that is often higher than that is - what is granted to the average citizen.

Now, of course, you know, we want to protect our police officers, and we do want to acknowledge the danger of the job that they occupy. But this mismatch in the ability to use deadly and lethal force between police and the average citizen is one facet of the issue that erodes trust between police and the communities they're sworn to protect and serve.

MARTIN: So to that end, I mean, one of the reasons that we called you is that in 2017, as United States Attorney General, the Justice Department released the results of a year-long investigation into the Chicago Police Department. This stemmed from the shooting death of a Black teenager, Laquan McDonald, by a white police officer.

And the investigation focused on the use of force and racial disparities in policing and found, quote, "a pattern or practice of force in violation of the Constitution." And the report cited training and accountability as the main reasons for these violations. I just wanted to ask you to sort of talk about that, where what are the main sort of gaps and lapses that you found in this report? And has anything been done to address these concerns since?

LYNCH: You know, the Chicago report was fascinating for many reasons. But one of the things we tried to do when we looked at the Chicago Police Department was look at not just how it was failing the citizens of Chicago but also explored the issue that quickly became clear to us - that the Chicago Police Department was in many ways failing its own officers.

And you see that a lot in cities and jurisdictions where police departments have a troubled relationship with the community or where their force - excessive force policies or patrol policies are at odds with the community because that tension is also felt within the police department. When you look at those agencies, you'll also - you'll often find structural problems there as well. And we did in Chicago. Obviously, we found a number of problems with the use of force policy in Chicago.

MARTIN: But can we talk about that for a second? Is...

LYNCH: Sure.

MARTIN: Because I wanted to say, as part of the investigation, the DOJ spoke with a number of law enforcement officers and leaders who were part of the department. And my recollection about the report is that officers talked about their lack of training and their discomfort...

LYNCH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...With the standards and accountability they were given. So could you just talk about that? What did they tell you?

LYNCH: Yes. Officers in Chicago and other jurisdictions have told us they felt adrift. They did not feel they had the support of their commanding officers unless they were engaging in the most harsh use of force available. And they did not have the tools that they needed, in fact, to provide a framework for other ways of enforcing the law.

MARTIN: As we mentioned earlier, this poll found that police themselves support calls for reform. A Morning Consult poll found that 59% of officers support banning no-knock warrants, 68% support restricting chokeholds. And beyond that, they found officers support broader reforms like a nationwide database on the use of force and curbing qualified immunity.

So if that exists - and you're telling us that that's something that you found - why, though, if you're saying officers have these views, rank-and-file officers have these views, leaders in these departments have these views, that is not the message that we often hear from law enforcement? The message that we hear from law enforcement...

LYNCH: Right.

MARTIN: ...Is you're either with them, or you're against them. So if that's the...

LYNCH: Yes.

MARTIN: And being with them seems to suggest that one should not pursue any changes to the ways that they do their job. So if you're saying there is that will within these departments, why don't we see more change?

LYNCH: I think it's because the will is also diffuse among so many different departments. I think also a lot of the structural change that is needed in terms of police accountability for shootings - for example, changing the way in which officers are questioned, changing the way in which officers are held accountable, changing qualified immunity - reflects changes and issues that police unions have fought for for decades. And police unions in particular are reluctant to give up those elements of their power. And so you get a lot of resistance from police unions.

And frankly, it's not every rank-and-file officer who's on board with these changes. So there's tremendous diffusion of thought among the rank and file. And the unions typically, in a view towards backing their officers, resist any and all change. And what you'll see is - and I think we're talking about it more and more - but it really hasn't been as clear. There's quite often a split between police unions and police management. You may have police chiefs who want to get rid of the problematic officers. And they may, in fact, discipline them and try and remove them from the force.

But the union benefits that they have bargained for and received allow them to be returned, allow them to stay on the force during any kind of adjudication. Arbitrations of these issues usually come down on the side of the officer. And so it's actually quite difficult to remove a police officer from misconduct in many, many police departments.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, in a number of cities - you have noted this yourself - in a number of areas, crime has spiked. It - there have been increases in violent crime and in nonviolent crime in a number of major cities - certainly in Washington, D.C., and in Chicago. And there are places where shootings have, in fact, increased.

And some are suggesting that this is because there's lack of - there's a lack of respect for law enforcement and that officers are more or less, you know, holding back. In part - they're tying this in part to kind of the street protests, which are protesting police actions in some places. Do you buy that? I mean, do you buy that crime is spiking in part because protesters are protesting police actions?

LYNCH: I think - I don't think we have enough data to tie it directly to that. When officers try and solve crime, one major problem that we've seen in many cities like Chicago is a lack of trust in people in coming forth as witnesses to crime. And when you don't have witnesses, you can't solve crime.

And when you can't solve crime, the rate goes up because people are acting with impunity - not necessarily because citizens have a view of the police, but because they know that no one will testify against them. So that's another factor that doesn't get discussed as much when we talk about, why does violent crime rise, and what is the basis for what's behind it?

So at this point, you know, we have seen an uptick in violent crime over the spring and summer. Now, of course, we saw significant decreases in other types of crime during the pandemic. You know, crimes against property went down dramatically. And other types of crime have gone down. And so a lot of it is pandemic-related. So I think at this point, it's too hard to say. And I think it's too simplistic an answer, quite frankly.

MARTIN: Loretta Lynch served as the attorney general of the United States from 2015 to 2017. She's currently a partner at the law firm Paul Weiss.

Madam Attorney General, thank you so much for joining us.

LYNCH: Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.