Historic DOJ week was more about restoration than reform


(Reuters) – It has been a hectic week at the US Department of Justice.

Beginning last Monday, the DOJ announced a list of new policies that represent a historic extension of its mission to protect civil and constitutional rights and a turning point from the Trump administration’s ultra-conservative approach to law application.

United States Attorney General Merrick Garland said on September 13 that the Justice Department would strengthen oversight of federal controllers who oversee police reforms required under agreements the agency typically makes with cities ( instead of chasing them). So-called consent decrees are similar to a regulation and often follow an investigation into the habits and practices of police departments, prisons and other public entities.

The DOJ also announced a new policy on strangles and no-strike warrants, a new investigation of patterns or practices in Georgia, and a review to determine whether recipients of federal grants are engaging in unlawful discrimination.

Movements are likely to have a significant positive impact. A 2009 Harvard Kennedy School study found that incidents of serious force by the Los Angeles Police Department have declined since a 2002 consent decree, for example.

Still, some measures are long overdue and others just don’t go far enough, especially considering the long and dark shadow of racist policing in the United States.

The DOJ did not respond to my questions about the initiatives announced last week.

Consider first the heightened observer surveillance and the Georgia investigation in a larger context.

The power of the DOJ to impose police reform comes from Section 14141 of a 1994 Crime Bill. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act has been passed in full force. part in response to protests and riots following Rodney King’s 1991 beating and subsequent acquittal of LAPD officers, the DOJ said in a 2017 statement. report on its typical or practical cases since 1994.

But the DOJ only opened 69 investigations between 1994 and 2017, despite a documented history of systemic police abuse in the United States, which has more than 18,000 police departments, according to the agency’s report.

(Former President Donald Trump’s administration essentially ended DOJ’s practice of police reform, before the recent takeover under President Joe Biden.)

In addition to the rarity of cases, some jurisdictions previously subject to consent decrees still exhibit unconstitutional policing models similar to those the Department of Justice has uncovered in recent years.

Columbus, Ohio, was one of the first cities to be sued by the DOJ’s civil rights division in 1999, in part over a pattern of bogus arrests. In fact, Reynoldsburg – which is part of the Columbus metropolitan area – was part of the debates leading up to the 1994 bill because a lawsuit showed abuse was so common in his police department that a unit ” was called the SNAT team, for ‘Special Nigger Arrest Team,’ “according to a 1991 House report.

Columbus’ consent decree expired in 2004, but activists have complained of fatal shootings against blacks. Local officials, including the city attorney, have directly called on the DOJ to intervene, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

The Justice Department has decided to provide technical assistance from its community policing office, but activists say they want the patterns or practices investigated.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice told me that her civil rights division carefully weighs the circumstances when deciding whether or not to open an investigation. The agency “is also examining the context for local reform efforts and whether federal enforcement action is needed” or whether “other forms of intervention would be more appropriate” to address community concerns, the agency said. agency.

Yet the need for more investigation of models or practices persists nationally, as does the need for better enforcement of consent agreements, as these policing issues recur in the future. Columbus and elsewhere.

Baltimore, for example, entered into a consent decree in 2017, but its controllers said in 2020 that “the reforms have yet to translate into widespread changes in the conduct of officers” and that the city’s record keeping was too bad to know if it was working, according to a Reuters special report.

Increased monitor monitoring also appears necessary for the same reasons – and Ohio provides another instructive example here.

Cleveland is currently under a consent agreement.

Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a black professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, was recently forced to resign as a member of the city’s police watch team, according to a July 19 report from the affiliate. Cleveland NPR, WCPN. Team leaders questioned Hardaway’s independence after criticizing US law enforcement in a radio interview.

Activists and the local NAACP responded with calls for the chief comptroller to be impeached, saying he was too friendly with the police department, according to WCPN. The team returned Hardaway to the surveillance team in July, citing community concerns.

It hasn’t always been clear which set of concerns – law enforcement or activists – caught the DOJ’s attention the most. Since the advent of the DOJ oversight process in 1994, law enforcement has complained about too much oversight. For example, the Chicago Police Union fought vigorously against a draft consent decree in 2018, the Chicago Tribune reported in November of the same year.

It should be noted that Garland made the monitor surveillance announcement on September 13 to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, referring to law enforcement concerns about the surveillance. He said he had called for a review to ensure that observers are “independent” and free from “conflicts of interest,” and that he values ​​the “partnership” of leaders. Garland used the same language as the Cleveland Monitoring Team and the Police Department about Hardaway’s temporary dismissal. A police reform advocate told the AP on Thursday that the phrase “partnership” in this context makes him skeptical of the reform.

With that in mind, Garland’s surveillance review may not be particularly promising for reform advocates.

When it comes to strangulation and no-strike warrant policies, most major police departments have already restricted strangulations, according to a January article report by the Criminal Justice Council. The DOJ is apparently catching up. And strangulation restrictions over the past decade haven’t really worked, in large part because police departments don’t strictly enforce them, an NPR investigation found in June 2020.

Additionally, DOJ policies still allow officers to use arrest warrants or no-strike warrants in certain circumstances. Both rules are subject to a reasonable apprehension of physical danger by officers, but this assessment is malleable and sometimes subjective.

In my opinion, the review to ensure that the Department of Justice does not provide grants to departments that discriminate seems a more promising way to impose certain reforms, if only because the agency may not have done much on this front historically.

But here too, it can be argued that the DOJ is simply taking one more step to ensure compliance with Title VI – a decades-old provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits recipients of federal grants from discriminating.

Overall, these measures are steps in the right direction and clearly indicate that the administration’s promises to improve justice and racial equity are not in vain. However, working to revive or restore a lax enforcement system is one thing, and improving or reforming that system is another.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the principles of trust, is committed to respecting integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the principles of trust, is committed to respecting integrity, independence and freedom from bias.


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