Loretta Lynch, new attorney general, works to develop rapport with police

Loretta Lynch appears to be working hard to distinguish herself from Eric Holder in the eyes of the police

When Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch visited Baltimore in the aftermath of last month's anti-police riots, she made a point of meeting quietly with a dozen officers as they were going out to patrol the still-tense city.

"You have picked a noble profession," she told the officers, including one who had been injured in the rioting. "Despite how people may want to portray it, you [should] hold on to that every day."

Nine months earlier, when her predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., traveled to Ferguson, Mo., under similar circumstances, he did not meet with rank-and-file police.

Instead he talked about how he had been profiled by police as a young man in Washington. "I understand that mistrust," he told community college students.

A month after being sworn in as the first African American female attorney general, Lynch, a former U.S. attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y., appears to be working hard to distinguish herself from her former boss in the eyes of law enforcement.

Her ability to straddle the chasm between police and minority communities may be crucial in the months ahead as she decides whether to prosecute police officers in New York, South Carolina and Baltimore, and reacts to the string of police shootings of young black men.

One early test could come in Cleveland. In December, the Justice Department issued a scathing report on abusive acts that members of the city's police force directed against suspects, primarily minorities. Federal officials are expected to announce as early as Tuesday that they've reached an agreement with Cleveland officials to impose federal monitors on the city to correct such problems. How Lynch handles the case could provide an early indication of what course the new attorney general plans to follow.

As she seeks to correct such problems, Lynch also must win the trust and respect of the law enforcement community she now leads.

"I thought her comments [in Baltimore] were very genuine and showed a deep concern for [the officers'] safety," said Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

During National Police Week in Washington this month, Lynch delivered the keynote speech at a candlelight vigil for fallen officers and attended a memorial service for peace officers sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police.

Last week, Lynch launched a national "Community Policing Tour" in Cincinnati designed to highlight programs that "strengthen police-community relations and foster mutual trust and respect."

As she did in Baltimore, she met both with the family of the victim of a police shooting and with rank-and-file officers, commending them for their efforts to reach out to the community. "It's very easy for the cameras to show up when something's on fire, but we also want them to see the work that you're doing day in and day out," she said.

Canterbury welcomed Lynch's efforts. "I think at this point the change was needed," he said. "There was a disconnect between Atty. Gen. Holder and the law enforcement community."

Holder, as a longtime federal prosecutor, was well respected by police when he took the top job at the Justice Department in 2008. He frequently talked about his admiration for his brother, a retired policeman.

But the good relations with police didn't survive into President Obama's second term, particularly after several highly publicized shootings of unarmed African American men by police officers.

"I think there was a sense that there was politicization of the position in recent years, and that's what sort of riled some people in the law enforcement community," said former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Law enforcement officials particularly objected to Holder's comments about the Ferguson Police Department and the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson, who was later exonerated by federal prosecutors.

"I think Ferguson was the breaking point for most law enforcement," Canterbury said. "We didn't object to Atty. Gen. Holder going to Ferguson, but he made some comments about the investigation of Officer Wilson that were very premature."

Holder's supporters say he worked hard to reach out to police.

"Eric Holder as attorney general had a very solid relationship with police all across the country going back to 2010," when police officers were being killed in large numbers and Holder started a police safety initiative, said Matthew Miller, a former Holder spokesman.

As for Ferguson, "he was brave enough to stand up and say what he thinks, and that's what you want from an attorney general," Miller said.

Lynch came into office with substantial support from law enforcement, notwithstanding her successful prosecution of New York City Police Officer Justin Volpe in the broomstick assault on Abner Louima in 1997, her signature case as an assistant U.S. attorney.

Kelly said Lynch earned the respect of police officers because of her "low-key, apolitical approach to the job."

But Lynch's honeymoon with police may soon be tested.

Within the next couple of months she is expected to decide whether to pursue charges against the New York City police officers who arrested Eric Garner on Staten Island last July, killing him with what appeared to be a chokehold that violated the department's regulations. Lynch had been leading the investigation in her former role as U.S. attorney.

Law enforcement officials and a local prosecutor who investigated the death say the officers had no intent to injure Garner, who was arrested for selling loose cigarettes.

"I don't see the DOJ charging officers in that case," said Ron Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, speaking of the Department of Justice.

But Justice Department officials have said there is a better chance of charges in the Staten Island case than Ferguson and some other recent police shootings, in part because of video that shows a prolonged struggle leading to Garner's death.

For the moment the mood in the law enforcement community about Lynch is optimistic.

"It's time for a new start. Let's see where this goes," said Hosko, a frequent critic of Holder. "She is an optimistic, smart, experienced lady. Let's hope she can process the sins or slights of her predecessor and hopefully not repeat them."

tim.phelps@latimes.com

Twitter: timphelpsLAT

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