After California engaged in a series of reforms to reduce incarceration, data shows crime has reached all-time lows. In Chicago, a report found violent crimes decreased by 8% during the same year when the number of sentences involving prison time fell by nearly one-fifth. An increase in homicides in Philadelphia has been attributed to drug-related crimes as the city wrestles with an opioid epidemic, though police department data shows violent crime has overall decreased in recent years. Despite the data, critics point to the district attorney’s office for reforms including ending cash bail and shorter sentences for lower-level crimes and investigating non-fatal shootings.

Overall, crime and murder are on a national decline—but Attorney General William Barr’s remarks to the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police’s 64th National Biennial Conference suggest otherwise. In his speech, Attorney General Barr called attention to recently elected district attorneys reforming criminal justice systems across the country—a movement Barr called “revolving door justice” and which he said is “demoralizing to law enforcement.”

His remarks prompted 70 leaders in criminal justice—including current and former elected prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and former Department of Justice and judicial officials—to sign onto a statement repudiating his comments.

“Hard data makes clear that too many cases come into the justice system unnecessarily, and too often incarceration exacerbates the likelihood of future criminal activity,” the statement reads. “Informed by this evidence, a new generation of prosecutors and law enforcement leaders are making their communities safer and healthier… using their discretion to prioritize the most serious cries and move conduct better addressed with the public health responses out of the justice system.”

Barr, while calling for the tough on crime practices that began with the Reagan Administration, focused greatly on the opioid epidemic: “A tsunami built up and has been crashing over the country, bringing death and destruction.”

But health experts have recommended law enforcement, who are often at the frontlines when dealing with the drug epidemic, handle the issue as a public health crisis and to support Good Samaritan laws, which provide varying degrees of protection from prosecution. “We felt it was vitally important given the fear-driven narrative of his remarks to make clear that current and former prosecutors, law enforcement leaders and others don’t share his view,” Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who is now executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, said.

“We brought together the voices of leaders who have seen the research and most importantly the failed results of the tough on crime policies of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Krinsky said. “We owe it to our communities to not live in past mistakes.”

Barr’s remarks to the FOP play into tensions that exist between reformist district attorneys and local police unions. In Philadelphia, the police union heavily opposed District Attorney Larry Krasner’s 2017 election—his background as defense attorney has included many civil rights cases in which he sued police and the government more than 75 times. Earlier this summer, the FOP sponsored a billboard reading “Help Wanted: New Philadelphia District Attorney.”

The �@FOPLodge5� and �@john_mcnesby� working hard to get their message out to the public. Check out these billboards on I95. �@GLFOP� �@PA_FOP�. Stay safe out there protecting our neighborhoods.

June 27, 2019

In Chicago, a letter from the police union to Cook County State’s Attorney’s Kim Foxx put it plainly: “A deep mistrust now exists between your office and ours.” Foxx, a black woman, was elected after a campaign to remove her predecessor, Anita Alvarez, for her handling of the Laquan McDonald investigation. Alvarez waited more than a year to file first-degree murder charges against then-Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.

In April, Chicago Sun-Times found groups tied to white nationalists including the Proud Boys, the American Guard and the American Identity Movement were present at a rally organized by the FOP against Foxx. 

But Krinsky notes that outside of the politics between the police unions and district attorneys, more often than not there is a collaborative working relationship between prosecutors and police departments with the same goals for public safety. “How we make communities safer has to do with whether communities trust us, one of the byproducts of the ‘80s and ‘90s was to destroy trust in the community especially in parts of the country that have been over-policed,” Krinsky said. “So it’s not surprising that law enforcement leaders agree that fear-driven, tough on crime mindset has failed and is not what we want.”

There were some law enforcement leaders in agreement who signed onto the statement. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said “public safety is not served by policies that fuel fear and distrust of police … we must lead with facts and best practices that move us into the 21st century rather than return us to a bygone era grounded in fear.”

Joseph Brann, former chief of the Hayward Police Department in California, also signed onto the statement. “We reject this type of rhetoric and are advancing new approaches that move us away from a carceral and ineffective justice system to one that recognizes science, distinguishes issues that require public health responses, and looks toward building meaningful and effective relationships with communities rather than instilling fear,” Brann said.

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....