Thursday morning’s “Building community trust” roundtable discussion in Oakland, California, with Attorney General Eric Holder, local law enforcement, elected officials, and community leaders was designed to “build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.” After brief remarks, Holder and company dismissed the press corps.
It is a courtesy, a Department of Justice spokesman explained, to allow participants to speak more candidly. And I knew that was the plan. Still, it was painful to watch as Holder spoke in favor of “body-worn cameras” for law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line and then effectively turned off media cameras that might have recorded any real dialogue, mayhap, of public officials whose polished images are on the line.
According to an email, Oakland police Chief Sean Whent “shared some of the Oakland Police Department’s ongoing public safety efforts and crime strategies including the (Operation) Ceasefire violence reduction strategy, Procedural Justice training, and (the department’s) involvement in youth mentoring programs.” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf later told me, “It was a dialogue about the issue of community trust, particularly with law enforcement.” A black Oakland police officer talked about growing up in Oakland. A Berkeley High student spoke about “white privilege.” Schaaf said she suggested that camera use during police training might help “to uncover people’s unconscious bias.”
But I missed all that, so let me vent about Holder. As he readies to step down from his Cabinet post, America’s top lawman will be remembered most for his skill at putting partisan politics first. Sure, he likes to don a mantle of social justice, but he doesn’t walk the walk.
Holder’s big hurdle to win confirmation as President Barack Obama’s head enforcer in 2009 was rooted in his actions as deputy attorney general to President Bill Clinton. Holder infamously gave Clinton cover to issue his 177 out-the-door presidential pardons January 20, 2001. Holder even gave a “neutral, toward leaning positive” recommendation to a pardon for Marc Rich, who fled the country after the feds indicted him in 1983 for evading $48 million in income taxes and illegally buying oil from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Ex-wife Denise Rich was a prominent Democratic donor. The pardon wiped clean charges for which the fugitive evaded trial.
As attorney general, Holder has had a chance to atone for his bad pardon recommendations by pushing commutations for low-level federal inmates who don’t have cozy connections with Democratic heavyweights. But he has been slow to use the pardon attorney’s office to champion relief for low-level drug offenders — many of them minorities — sentenced to decades behind bars thanks to the excesses of federal prosecutors. Holder can be brutal when black communities charge racial profiling by beat cops, who don’t work for Washington, but not on overzealous federal law enforcement under his own jurisdiction.
In his first term, Obama issued one commutation. Finally, in December 2013, Obama commuted the sentences of eight crack offenders serving draconian federal mandatory minimum terms. That was great. But then in April, Holder announced a clemency initiative for nonviolent low-level drug offenders who had served at least ten years and stayed out of trouble. There have been eleven commutations since then — which makes the new initiative a cover for the administration’s paucity on pardons and commutations.
That’s par for the course for Holder. Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat who represents Oakland, asked his Department of Justice to examine possible civil rights violations related to the January 1, 2009, Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer shooting of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed 22-year-old African-American. She asked for the probe in 2010 after a jury convicted BART cop Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter. Jurors could have convicted Mehserle of voluntary manslaughter or second-degree murder but apparently bought the cop’s contention that he meant to shock Grant with his Taser but mistakenly shot off his gun.
Lee asked for that probe four and half years ago. As of last month, the Washington Post reported, the Department of Justice hadn’t released an official finding.
Last month, the New York Times reported that Department of Justice lawyers would not recommend filing civil rights charges against former Ferguson, Missouri, police Officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. How is it that the department hasn’t released a finding on the 2009 BART shooting? Fellow passengers captured Grant’s end on video. “The facts of that case are not hard to figure out,” Kent Scheidegger of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation observed. I can only guess that when there is no partisan play to be made, the outgoing attorney general is happy to watch high-stakes criminal justice matters dangle in the wind.
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