Attorney General Barr Puts Partisan Politics Above Common Sense In Naming Crime Commission

Photo courtesy of ABC News

(2-17-20) I was surprised late last month by Attorney General William Barr‘s choices for a presidential crime commission created to study how our criminal justice system interacts with Americans who are homelessness and have a mental illness. I only recognized one name on the list. This was BEFORE the recent criticism Barr has faced because of his decision to get involved in the Roger Stone case. I decided to check out the backgrounds of his selections. Here is what I discovered.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order late last month creating the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice after repeatedly calling for a crackdown on homelessness and linking Americans with mental illnesses to violence.

While the President has an opportunity to use the commission to make much needed reforms, none of the 18 officials whom Barr selected work in cities with the largest homeless populations – San Jose, San Diego, Seattle, Los Angeles and New York City. Together those five account for more than 150,000 of the 564,708 homeless Americans. At least forty-five percent are believed to have a mental illness.

Instead, Barr chose police chiefs, sheriffs, and others in law enforcement from smaller jurisdictions with fewer homeless, such as Wichita, Kansas; Pinellas County, Florida; McKinney, Texas; and Shelby County, Alabama. While many of Barr’s choices have impressive law enforcement backgrounds, they come from communities that account for a combined total of less than 23,000 homeless residents. Los Angeles alone has 59,000. South Dakota counted about one thousand homeless residents in the entire state, yet its secretary of public safety was chosen by Barr.

Even more troubling, Barr’s handpicked appointees are overwhelmingly from red states and counties that voted for Trump in 2016, while the snubbed West Coast cities and New York City lean Democratic and have been frequently lambasted as “liberal” by Trump.

The presidential commission was created to investigate “challenges to law enforcement associated with mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse, and other social factors that influence crime and strain criminal justice resources,” yet only law enforcement officers are on the panel.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson used his executive powers to appoint an identical presidential commission. Its report led to important reforms in policing but its commissioners drew from outside law enforcement, including the president of Yale University, state legislators, law professors and representatives from the media, League of Women Voters, and National Urban League.

If the purpose of President Trump’s commission is to force the homeless, mentally ill and addicted from the streets by criminalizing them, then limiting participation to only law enforcement might make sense. But if the President is serious about his commitment to investing in solutions and community-based services then others with experience working across systems with at risk populations should be heard.

Even within law enforcement, Barr passed over three national experts. Miami-Dade Judge Steven Leifman created a national model that reduced arrests of the mentally ill for minor crimes clearly related to their illnesses. Jail bookings dropped, and the average daily inmate population in Miami-Dade declined by one-third, from 6,373 to 4,225. The change was so dramatic that officials closed one of their three jails, saving taxpayers about $12 million a year. The number of people homeless on the streets has declined.

For decades, Sam Cochran, a former Memphis police major, has been the face of Crisis Intervention Team training, which helps officers avoid deadly encounters with mentally disturbed individuals. People with serious mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be fatally shot by police during an encounter and one count found 115 police officers were murdered by individuals with mental illnesses between 2011 and 2017. The federal Bureau of Justice estimates that today more than 400 police and sheriff’s departments in the U.S. and 1,000 overseas have implemented CIT programs, saving the lives of police and the mentally ill. Barr also ignored Ron Bruno,vice president of CIT International, a police officer, and a White House appointee to the federal ISMICC panel that advises HHS and Congress about mental health matters.

The commission will hold hearings where “subject matter experts,” such of Leifman, Cochran and Bruno can be heard.

That sounds reasonable, but how eager will the commission’s chairman, a Trump appointee in the Justice Department, be to seek testimony from officials in West Coast cities and New York City who were ignored by his boss and have been blamed by the president for mismanaging homelessness? Will a panel composed exclusively of law enforcement officers invite testimony from families such as Ron and Cathy Thomas, whose homeless son with schizophrenia, Kelly, was beaten to death by six Fullerton, California police officers?

If it does, then we will know its members are serious about exploring real reforms and their appointments were not simply pandering by Barr during an election year.

Commissioners on the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice include:

  • Chair: Phil Keith, Director, Community Oriented Policing Services
  • Vice-Chair: Katharine Sullivan, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs
  • David Bowdich, Deputy Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Donald Washington, Director, United States Marshals Services
  • Regina Lombardo, Acting Director, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives
  • Erica Macdonald, United States Attorney, District Of Minnesota
  • D. Christopher Evans, Chief of Operations, Drug Enforcement Administration
  • James Clemmons, Sheriff, Richmond County, North Carolina
  • Frederick Frazier, City Council, McKinney, Texas/ Police Officer, Dallas Police Department
  • Robert Gualtieri, Sheriff, Pinellas County, Florida
  • Gina Hawkins, Chief of Police, Fayetteville, North Carolina
  • Ashley Moody, Florida Attorney General
  • Nancy Parr, Commonwealth’s Attorney, Chesapeake, Virginia
  • Craig Price, South Dakota Secretary of Public Safety
  • Gordon Ramsay, Chief of Police, Wichita, Kansas
  • David B. Rausch, Director, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
  • John Samaniego, Sheriff, Shelby County, Alabama
  • James Smallwood, Police Officer, Nashville Metropolitan Police Department

The Commission will meet monthly for the next year and then report its findings to the Attorney General, who will submit a final report to the President.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.