Attorney General William Barr said he believes that there is a “widespread phenomenon” in which African American males are often treated differently by law enforcement in the United States.
“I do think it is a widespread phenomenon that African American males, particularly, are treated with extra suspicion and maybe not given the benefit of the doubt,” Barr said during an ABC News interview broadcast on July 8. He said it’s wrong if people are “not respected appropriately and given their due.”
The comments provide further insights into his position on systemic bias in policing of the African American community. Last month, Barr said in another interview that he doesn’t think the “law enforcement system is systemically racist.” He clarified his position in the ABC interview, saying that he was unsure what people meant when asked about “systemic” racism.
“Well the word ‘systemic,’ I’m not sure whether people mean it’s built into the system, so the system inherently has this, or whether they mean it’s [a] widespread issue,” he said.
Protests calling for a change in policing and police accountability erupted across the nation following the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes while he was being arrested.
The incident, Barr said, demonstrated that the country still has work to do in regards to correcting years of distrust between the African American community and law enforcement.
“Before the George Floyd incident, I thought we were in a good place,” Barr said. “I thought that economic opportunities were expanding and the African American community was able to participate more than ever before in those opportunities.
“I think that this episode in Minneapolis showed that we still have some work to do in addressing the distrust that exists in the African American community toward law enforcement.”
Barr had previously said America is still in the process of making reforms to ensure that U.S. institutions, which had been explicitly racist prior to the 1960s, reflect the values and law of modern society.
“I think the reform is a difficult task, but I think it is working and progress has been made,” Barr told CBS’s Face the Nation on June 7.
In the ABC interview, he noted that there’s been some success in reforming police practices in recent years to reduce the number of African American deaths from excessive use of force by law enforcement. He added that while that area is important, the concept of “black lives matter” should also be expanded beyond lives lost to police abuse, something that is frequently spotlighted in national dialogues.
“Obviously, black lives matter. I think all lives, all human life is sacred. I also think that it’s being used now—is sort of distorting the debate to some extent. Because it’s used really to refer exclusively to black lives that are lost to police misconduct, which have been going down, statistically. Five years ago, there were 40 such incidents. This last year, it was 10. So at least it’s a positive trajectory there. But then you compare it to 8,000 homicides in the African American community … those are black lives that matter too,” he said, adding that ensuring that the African American community can fully participate in the benefits of society is another important aspect.
Barr has been visiting communities and law enforcement officials across the nation in recent weeks to seek input on a range of issues, including community relations, and police training and practices.
During a press conference on July 8, Barr called on lawmakers and officials to approach police reform with prudence and balance in order to avoid extremes and ensure peace and security in society.
“It’s a question of striking the right balance,” Barr said. “We need to support the police so they’re out there protecting the community. But at the same time, we have to be sure that there aren’t these abuses.
“It’s not defunding the police or doing away with the police or demonizing the police. Nor is it giving short shrift to the legitimate concerns that are out there about police abuses and overreach. So I think we have to strike a balance here.”
Congress has also been working toward developing a police reform bill in response to calls for change.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced a version of such a bill, the Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere Act, known as the JUSTICE Act, in June.
The proposal (pdf) would have banned the use of chokeholds, increase the use of body cameras, provide for more police training, and provide for more transparency in policing practices, for example, by mandating reporting to the FBI each time a firearm is discharged by a police officer toward a civilian. The bill failed a procedural vote in the Senate to begin debate.
The House passed a competing version of the bill—The Justice in Policing Act—last month, which is unlikely to pass the Senate.