The Slatest

Did Loretta Lynch’s Plans to Ease Police Tensions Just Go Up in Smoke?

Police fire tear gas canisters as violent protests move along Pennsylvania Avenue following the funeral of Freddie Gray April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.  

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

So much for easing into the job. Only hours after she was sworn in as U.S. attorney general on Monday, Loretta Lynch met privately with President Obama to update him on the ongoing unrest in Baltimore that was sparked by the death of a 25-year-old black man in police custody nine days earlier. Several hours later—as that unrest turned increasingly violent—Lynch condemned what she called the “senseless acts of violence” that were taking place in Maryland’s largest city.*

“Those who commit violent actions, ostensibly in protest of the death of Freddie Gray, do a disservice to his family, his loved ones, and to legitimate peaceful protesters who are working to improve their community for all its residents,” Lynch said on a day that saw police pelted with bricks, cars set ablaze, and several stores looted following an afternoon funeral service in the city for Gray.

The Justice Department launched a civil rights probe into Gray’s death last week, so even before the protests turned into riots, Lynch’s first few days in office were destined to be difficult ones. But Monday’s violence—which drew her first major statement as the nation’s top law enforcement official—suggested her attention would be dominated by Baltimore in specific and policing in general even more than anyone could have expected.

That could pose a particular problem for Lynch given it would appear to upend her plans to spend her first few months working relatively behind the scenes to smooth tensions between the Justice Department and local law enforcement officials around the country, some of whom felt that Eric Holder had been too critical of police in the wake of a string of police incidents that ended in the deaths of black men. Here’s how the New York Times previewed Lynch’s intentions just last week:

Ms. Lynch … shares many of [Eric] Holder’s liberal views but has signaled that she plans a different approach, particularly in the nationwide debate over police tactics. While Mr. Holder recently completed a tour of minority communities to discuss policing, Ms. Lynch’s aides said that improving police morale and finding common ground between law enforcement and minority communities would be among her top priorities. …

Ms. Lynch has spoken about the need for police officers, because they have positions of power, to repair fractured relationships with minorities. But she has also described, in passionate and personal terms, how law enforcement is a force for good in minority neighborhoods. “She really thinks the communities and the police officers have more in common than they realize,” one adviser said.

Lynch can, of course, still try to convince them both of that. But the longer the violence rages in Baltimore, the more difficult such a pitch becomes.

*Correction, April 28, 2015: This post originally misstated that Baltimore is the capital of Maryland. Annapolis is the capital.