As New Orleans voters began casting ballots for the city’s next district attorney, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr on Friday denounced “social justice DAs” and the media during a meeting of major city police chiefs in the Roosevelt Hotel.
Lambasting the “soft on crime crowd,” Barr warned about the dangers of liberal district attorneys, bail reform and subjecting cops to more lawsuits.
His half-hour speech drew polite applause from the socially-distanced group of police chiefs who gathered in the ballroom of the downtown hotel, but nowhere near the raucous response a much larger gathering of sheriffs in New Orleans gave him last year before the pandemic.
Attendees included New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson and his predecessor, Michael Harrison, who now serves as chief in Baltimore and as a board member of the organization hosting this week’s conference, the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Barr said the climate for police today was “10 times more difficult than it has to be” because of a “deceitful national media that seizes on a relatively few incidents … to cultivate a false narrative that our police are systematically evil.”
He saved special ire for the call to defund the police and reinvest the public tax money in social programs. Barr said he had yet to meet a civic leader from “our inner cities’ communities” who was calling for fewer police.
“Yes, they want the respect that they are due as citizens of our country, but if anything, they want more police, they want greater safety,” Barr said. “They’re tired of living behind bars while criminals roam the streets, completely free.”
Meanwhile, he also called on voters to reject “social justice DAs who do not believe it’s their job to enforce the law” and “judges who are indulgent of criminals.”
Those were familiar hobbyhorses for the attorney general, who’s regularly complained about so-called “progressive prosecutors” elected in places like Philadelphia and San Francisco. While he didn’t single out New Orleans, his comments came at a time when New Orleanians were lining up at early voting locations to pick a new DA and several new judges. All four candidates for Orleans Parish district attorney promise reforms if elected, including a more aggressive stance toward prosecuting police misconduct.
Barr’s boss, Donald Trump, is also on the Nov. 3 ballot, but he didn’t speak about the presidential election.
Meanwhile, Barr hit on another familiar theme when he blamed the recent rise in homicides on the protests after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25.
Nationally, while violent crime decreased slightly during the first six months of the year, homicides were up nearly 15 percent, according to FBI data. They remain far lower than their highs in the 1990s. In New Orleans, homicides are up 66 percent this year compared to last.
“Unfortunately, people seem to have taken it for granted that we have these low crime rates, lower crime rates than we did,” Barr said. “Even before COVID and the death of George Floyd this year, we were seeing an uptick in violent crime in many of our cities. But with the lockdown and the demonization of police we have seen that increase take hold.”
The Justice Department has threatened to withhold funding from three so-called “anarchist jurisdictions” — Portland, Seattle and New York — for their handling of protests and their position on defunding the police, drawing criticism that Barr is fearmongering.
All three “anarchist” cities are much safer than New Orleans as measured by homicides. New Orleans’ murder rate this year is on track to be seven times as high as Portland’s rate.
Barr didn’t deploy that term on Friday, although he did criticize politicians in New York State for enacting bail reforms that have allowed more people to stay out of jail ahead of trial and for allowing defendants to review the state’s case against them more quickly after arrest.
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