With Jeff Sessions sworn in as the nation's attorney general, the Trump administration signaled some of its priorities for a revamped Justice Department in a series of executive orders aimed at reducing crime and drug trafficking and protecting police officers.
One executive order announced Thursday directs the Justice Department to define new federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing ones, to further protect local and federal officers from acts of violence.
Another order calls for the creation of a task force to reduce violent crime — even though the murder rate has declined sharply in recent decades — and a third is aimed at dismantling international drug cartels.
Taken together, the directives, announced amid a national dialogue about racial bias in policing and appropriate police use of force, suggest that the White House wants to prioritize law and order and align itself closely with local law enforcement.
"We must better protect those who protect us. Our men and women in blue need to know that we're with them 100 percent as they patrol our streets. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said at a press briefing.
That was perhaps a reference to criticism directed at one of Sessions' predecessors, former Attorney General Eric Holder, by some local law enforcement officials who saw him as insensitive to the challenges of their jobs and as overly sympathetic to the concerns of black protesters. Holder denied those accusations, repeatedly noting his support for the police and that his brother was a retired officer.
On Thursday, in response to the executive order, Holder posted on Twitter a Justice Department press release from 2011 announcing an initiative aimed at preventing police officer deaths. "It worked and continues to protect," Holder wrote.
Sessions, who represented Alabama in the Senate for the last 20 years, was sworn in Thursday after being confirmed the night before. The executive orders are in keeping with his commitment to represent law-and-order interests. He said at his confirmation hearing last month that he was concerned that a recent uptick in homicides in American cities could become a trend.
"Protecting the people of this country from crime, and especially from violent crime, is the high calling of the men and women of the Department of Justice. Today, I am afraid, that has become more important than ever," Sessions said in his prepared remarks.
In a video statement Thursday to Justice Department employees, Sessions said the department plays a critical role in "maintaining and strengthening the rule of law which forms the foundation for our liberty, our safety, and our prosperity."
Aside from the executive orders, Sessions, a conservative Republican known in the Senate for his hard-line views on immigration, is likely to pursue a different agenda than his Democratic predecessors in areas of civil rights and the criminal justice system.
In an interview Thursday, Pat O'Carroll, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said the executive order sent an important message of support at a time of increased attacks and ambushes against police officers.
But others said the executive orders purported to address problems that don't exist.
Under existing law, federal prosecutors already have the ability to pursue the death penalty in some cases involving the murders of law enforcement officers. And murder rates, despite an increase in some American cities, are well below where they were overall in the 1970s and 1980s.
"President Trump intends to build task forces to investigate and stop national trends that don't exist," Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
"We have seen historic lows in the country's crime rate and a downward trend in killings against police officers since the 1980s," Robinson said. "The president not only doesn't acknowledge these facts about our nation's safety, he persists in ignoring the all-too-real deaths of black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement."
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