Amid nationwide unrest and frustration with law enforcement, Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday acknowledged that communities of color are often policed differently from white ones, calling the unfairness a “widespread phenomenon.”
“I do think it is a widespread phenomenon that African American males, in particular, are treated with extra suspicion and maybe not given the benefit of the doubt,” Barr told ABC News Chief Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas in an exclusive interview.
“I think it is wrong if people are not respected appropriately and given their due,” he explained, “and I think it’s something we have to address.”
Backlash and protests in the wake of multiple high-profile killings of unarmed African Americans – including of George Floyd in Minneapolis – has evolved into a national reckoning and calls for an overhaul of law enforcement.
Barr said he hopes Floyd’s death “is a catalyst for the kinds of changes that are needed.”
“Before the George Floyd incident I thought we were in a good place,” he continued. “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.”
In Congress, efforts to enact legislative change in law enforcement have thus far failed. A police reform bill penned in June by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., died in the Senate, where Democrats voted almost unanimously against moving forward with the proposal.
Scott, who joined Barr during his visit to South Carolina on Wednesday to meet with law enforcement, insisted “the bill wasn’t a failure,” and told ABC News that he remains hopeful that legislators can come together on crafting a bipartisan effort.
As protests continue, Barr pushed back on calls to “defund the police,” a phrase that has emerged as a rallying cry for demonstrators. Asked whether there is “value in defunding the police,” Barr was unequivocal: “No, because I don’t think the money should come out of the police.”
“We have to think about more investment in the police,” he added. “So one of the things we’ve been talking about is trying to direct some of the [Health and Human Services] money and grant programs and sync it up with law enforcement spending so we can enable the departments to have co-responders. That is, social workers and mental health experts who can go on certain kinds of calls to help.”
In the department’s only civil rights investigation into police use of force, Barr shared the results exclusively with ABC News.
“We found, in that case, that there was a drug unit in the Springfield (Mass.) police department that was engaged in a pattern and practice of using excessive force,” Barr said.
When pressed over why previous administrations had mounted approximately 70 "pattern or practice" probes in comparison with the single investigation under the Trump administration, Barr said he would not necessarily be opposed to using them as a tool more in the future — but indicated his belief that there are better ways to conduct oversight of police departments.
Barr also weighed in on the Black Lives Matter movement, which has seen a notable uptick in support in recent weeks despite harsh criticism from President Donald Trump, who has called the movement a "symbol of hate." A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that more than two-thirds of Americans now support it to some extent.
"Black Lives Matter-- is a term that's being used, it's a group that pushes for civil rights of African Americans. What's-- what's your view of Black Lives Matter? And are you willing to say Black Lives Matter?" Thomas asked.
"Well, I make a distinction. I'd make a distinction between the organization, which I don't agree with. They have a broader agenda," Barr responded. "But in terms of the proposition that black lives matter, obviously black lives matter. I think all lives all human life is is sacred and entitled to respect. And obviously, black lives matter.
"But 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 are, you know, 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 a thousand homicides in the African American community. Those black lives matter, too. And those are lives that are protected by the police," he added.
In his framing of the Black Lives Matter movement, however, Barr said it remains is too narrow. More focus should be placed on economic advancement as opposed to “just physical safety.” On its website, the Black Lives Matter movement describes itself as "committed to struggling together and to imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive."
“It’s not just protecting life. It’s black lives matter in ensuring that African Americans fully participate in the benefits of this society and their lives flourish,” Barr continued. “It goes beyond just physical safety. It goes to getting good education, it goes to having economic opportunities.”
In terms of violence against African Americans, Barr added that he fears protesters are missing a key element of the broader narrative. That is, violence within their own communities.
“I also think [the phrase] is being used now – it is distorting the debate to some extent, because it is used really to refer almost exclusively to black lives that are lost to police misconduct,” he said. “Then you compare it to 8,000 homicides in the African American community, those are black lives that matter, too. And those are lives that are protected by the police.”
In Kansas City, for example, Barr said the Justice Department has been in touch with state authorities in Missouri to provide additional federal agents after what Barr called “a serious spike in crime.”
The influx of support will be called Operation Legend, named after a 4-year-old boy who was shot and killed while sleeping in his Kansas City home. The boy had just recovered from open-heart surgery.
“My daughter had open heart surgery at a comparable age, and I remember how stressful it was for our family,” Barr said. “And the idea of your child surviving that, and the joy you would feel to see your kid pull through something like that, it affected me a lot.”
This report was featured in the Thursday, July 9, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
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