“If we wish to minimize excessive force situations, the most important and most effective step we can take is to reestablish and enforce the principle that there is no valid justification for physically resisting a police officer,” Barr said Oct. 20 during an address to law enforcement at the National Association of Police Organizations Conference.
“The approach has to be ‘comply first and complain later,'” he added.
He made the remarks amid a national dialogue pushing for police reforms, after protests and rioting erupted across the United States following the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died in police custody. His death and several others, such as Breonna Taylor’s, fueled calls for changing excessive force practices and further law enforcement training. Amid the protests, some city officials have said they would defund or even dismantle the police, escalating anti-police sentiments.
Barr acknowledged the existence of excessive force, but accused the media of inaccurately portraying the risks of police encounters with violent individuals and police training.
“They’re heedless of the point that officers are trained when there is a predication for using deadly force, you shoot until the threat is neutralized, and you’d see the threat neutralized. But none of these factors are covered by the media because the media is interested in sensationalizing these instances, demonizing the officers involved, and thereby demonizing all officers,” he said.
“They represent public authority, they must prevail. That’s a tough situation to be in when you’re facing violent resistance. Police officers don’t have to be told to de-escalate, they know to de-escalate, they try every day to de-escalate. But when de-escalation doesn’t work, and they’re faced with violence, they have to subdue that person. And they’re frequently at a disadvantage in a struggle because they have to worry about their firearm being taken from them.”
Barr said while there’s always a constant need to improve police practices and accountability to “weed out” bad actors, it’s also important to ensure that the steps for reform are fair and address challenges faced by law enforcement such as health risks and evolving threats.
The attorney general also criticized calls to eliminate qualified immunity, a doctrine that shields government officials from liability for damages claims for harm caused by their actions as they perform official duties.
He said that in situations in which an officer knowingly and willfully violates a well-established right, then it may be appropriate to hold the officer civilly liable. But he said qualified immunity is necessary to ensure police officers can do their job without fear.
“Qualified immunity provides breathing space for officers to do their job without fear that an inadvertent or unpredictable error will subject them to personal financial ruin,” he said. “Without qualified immunity, individual officers would be deterred from taking the kinds of risky steps that are absolutely necessary to protect the community.”
Qualified immunity was placed front and center during discussions for police reform. Multiple state legislatures have been considering doing away with the protection for state and local police and correctional officers. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Congress on both sides of the aisle have introduced bills advocating for the removal or limitation of the doctrine.
The Trump administration has been supportive of police reform and has taken action to implement changes. President Donald Trump in June signed an executive order on policing titled “Safe Policing for Safe Communities,” which aims to build trust between communities and members of law enforcement.
Barr said the presidential law enforcement commission is ready to release a report that consists of various recommendations to help improve law enforcement in the country. But the report’s release is currently blocked by a federal judge following a lawsuit that claimed the commission’s process was secretive and lacked diversity.