Ferguson, Missouri, has become "an emblem of the tense relationship" between law enforcement and those it serves, especially minority communities, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Friday during a visit to St. Louis.
Sessions, speaking to a gathering of law enforcement leaders at the federal courthouse that sits roughly 12 miles from Ferguson, said the Justice Department will work with them to battle the rising tide of violent crime in America. He said he supports "proactive, up-close policing — when officers get out of their squad cars and interact with everyone on their beat — that builds trust, prevents violent crime, saves lives and creates a good atmosphere."
But Sessions said that sort of police work has become increasingly difficult in what he called "an age of viral videos and targeted killings of police."
"Unfortunately, in recent years law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the crime and unacceptable deeds of a few in their ranks," Sessions said. "Amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, morale has gone down, while the number in their ranks killed in the line of duty has gone up."
Ferguson, he said, has become "an emblem of the tense relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve, especially our minority communities."
Ferguson became a flashpoint after 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, was killed by white officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. Months of often violent protests followed the shooting. A St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department cleared Wilson of wrongdoing in November 2014, and he resigned that same month.
But the Justice Department investigation under then-Attorney General Eric Holder found significant racial profiling and bias in both Ferguson's police department and municipal court. The city and the Justice Department settled a lawsuit last year that requires significant changes in policing. That process is ongoing.
Sessions is taking a far different approach than Holder. Civil rights investigations of police were common during the Obama administration. Sessions has suggested that civil rights investigations hinder police, causing them to back off out of fear of scrutiny of their every move. In fact, some have labeled the phenomenon the "Ferguson Effect."
Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss, who attended the speech, said he was encouraged by Sessions' commitment to battling violent crime. And Moss believes the Justice Department remains steadfast in working with Ferguson leaders to eliminate racial bias.
"We're working with the Department of Justice, in fact, on a weekly basis," Moss said. "They remain as committed as they always have been to the reforms we've agreed upon."
President Ronald Reagan chose Sessions for a federal judgeship in the 1980s, but the nomination was rejected amid concerns about racially charged comments and his failed prosecution of three black civil rights activists on voting fraud charges.
Denise Lieberman, a St. Louis lawyer with the civil rights group Advancement Project, said Sessions' approach is concerning at a time when allegations of violence by police are at an all-time high.
"We also know that the role of the Department of Justice is absolutely critical to ensuring that policing agencies are complying with the law, and they are a crucial step in bringing accountability to policing," Lieberman said. "We see that right here in Ferguson."
Sessions told the St. Louis audience he has ordered the creation of a crime-fighting task force that brings together the leaders of the FBI, DEA, ATF and U.S. Marshals Service. He said battling the heroin and opioid epidemic is a crucial element of the fight to stem violent crime.