WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said America is “at a point now similar to 50 years ago with the civil rights movement,” owing to the rising visibility of police misconduct and the discussion it provokes.
“The televising of the police dogs and the fire hoses on young people then was a motivating factor and wake-up call really for people within the U.S. and outside the U.S. to really face the issues of racial unrest in America,” Lynch told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“Similarly we’re at a situation where viewing these videos, viewing these incidents of misconduct, of deaths occurring – hard as they are to see – is giving an opportunity to talk about this,” she added.
“And frankly, it’s giving law enforcement the opportunity to step forward, to be accountable and talk about what is and is not effective policing.”
Police killings of black males across America – including in New York, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina and California, among other states – has escalated the debate over the use of excessive police force and sparked a Black Lives Matter movement that is urging government officials to provide increased training and body cameras for police officers.
Lynch has made police reform one of her signature goals as the country’s chief law enforcement official – a position she’s held less than a year.
Her office has been aggressive in launching investigations against police forces that make international news with seemingly wayward tactics.
Last month, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would investigate the Chicago Police Department, a move that came two weeks after police released dashcam video of an officer shooting to death 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Reports released by the city of Chicago indicated the video contradicted elements of the police’s previous account of what had happened.
The Justice Department also investigated the Ferguson, Missouri, police and found a “pattern and practice” of discrimination. The fatal shooting there of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement in America. The police officer involved, Darren Wilson, was not charged in the case, and the Justice Department cleared him of wrongdoing.
The rising documentation of such controversial incidents – rather than an increase in these situations themselves – is what’s significant, she said.
“A lot of the things that are talked about are visible today because, quite frankly, we have visibility into situations that we didn’t always have – the witness with the cell phone, the security camera,” Lynch said.
“I think if you talk to people who live in communities that deal with these issues all the time, they will say to you that what these videos are showing us now is what people in many minority communities have been talking about for years, and what they’ve been describing for years, but they haven’t been believed.
“They have been dismissed, mainly because people don’t want to believe that law enforcement can overstep,” she added. “And of course, it’s not every law enforcement officer. But when it happens, the impact that it has, the gash that it leaves, in the web of trust that we need in order for everyone to feel safe, is tremendous. And so that’s why these incidents resonate so deeply.”
Lynch said being an African-American and a longtime federal prosecutor leaves her uniquely positioned to understand the problem and how to fix it.
“I’ve worked with police, I’ve worked with agents. I’ve also worked with communities who have dealt with these issues over the years that I’ve been involved in law enforcement,” she said. “It can be done. It takes commitment from both sides.
“Law enforcement has to be willing to examine its actions, its role in these events, the type of training that goes on, and frankly impose a level of first-line accountability that everyone expects from people with the type of power and responsibility that we in law enforcement have.”