US Justice Department Ramps Up Investigations of Police

US Justice Department Ramps Up Investigations of Police

America's Voice Admin
May 20, 2021

In the wake of George Floyd's death last May beneath the knee of then-police officer Derek Chauvin, Black Lives Matter protesters demanded that the Justice Department investigate the Minneapolis police department for civil rights violations.   

People hold up signs, including one with an image of George Floyd, outside the courthouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 20, 2021, after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the death of Floyd.
FILE - People hold up signs, including one with an image of George Floyd, outside the courthouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 20, 2021, after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the death of Floyd.

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department investigated two dozen police agencies for evidence of misconduct and gross violations of Black Americans' rights, eventually entering into court-approved agreements with 14 of them to try to correct the problems.       

But once Republican Donald Trump succeeded Democrat Barack Obama, the Justice Department stopped investigating police, with Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, saying such investigations would amount to governmental overreach and demoralize law enforcement.       

Now, with Democrat Joe Biden — Obama's former vice president and a onetime Senate Judiciary Committee chairman — in the White House, the Department of Justice, to the cheers of many in civil rights circles, is reversing course again.      

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks about a jury's verdict in the case against former Minneapolis Police Officer.
FILE - Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks about a jury's verdict in the case against former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, at the Department of Justice, in Washington, April 21, 2021.

In a departure from Trump-era policies, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced April 21 that the Justice Department would investigate the Minneapolis police department to determine whether it engages in a "pattern or practice" of unconstitutional and illegal policing.      

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 13: Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor and others lead a memorial march for Breonna Taylor near…
FILE - Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor, and others lead a memorial march for Breonna Taylor near Jefferson Square Park on March 13, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Five days later, Garland ordered a similar investigation of the police department in Louisville, Kentucky, where officers shot and killed African American emergency medic Breonna Taylor during a botched raid on her apartment March 13, 2020, a little more than two months before Floyd's death.       

The back-to-back investigations come after a jury on April 20 convicted Chauvin of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Chauvin, who still awaits sentencing, is seeking a new trial, although most experts see that as a long shot.      

FILE - This combination of photos provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.
FILE - Combination of photos provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota shows Minneapolis Police Officers Derek Chauvin, from left, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.

Three other former Minneapolis police officers have been charged in connection with the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine and a half minutes. All four former police officers also face federal charges of violating Floyd's civil rights.      

Typically, a federal investigation of a police force leads to a court-enforced agreement known as a consent decree, with the department pledging to reform its practices and policies — especially in the use of deadly force to make arrests.       

The investigations of the Minneapolis and Louisville police forces are likely to lead to such agreements. They come as the Biden administration, spurred by the Black Lives Matter protest movement against systemic racism and police brutality in America, has made civil rights enforcement a top priority for the Justice Department.     

A 1994 federal law championed by then-Senator Biden authorizes the attorney general to take legal action against police departments engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional and illegal policing. Since then, the Justice Department has investigated 61 police departments, leading to the signing of consent decrees with 31 agencies.      

In a recent memo rescinding the Trump-era policy, Garland wrote that "the department will use all appropriate legal authorities to safeguard civil rights and protect the environment, consistent with long-standing departmental practice and informed by the expertise of the department's career workforce."       

Garland didn't say if the department is eyeing other police departments for investigation. But given that the Biden administration's record is likely to be judged against the large number of police investigations carried out during Obama's eight years in office, the Justice Department is likely to ramp up its inquiries, according to former DOJ officials involved in investigating police departments.       

"I expect to see a lot more," said Ed Caspar, senior counsel with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who worked in the Justice Department's Special Litigation Section, the unit that investigates police departments.         

Supported by civil rights advocates, federal oversight of police departments has prompted pushback by some in law enforcement. For one, critics say the reform agreements can cost cities millions of dollars a year in court-mandated investments in technology and training and in payments to independent monitoring teams.       

"They are very, very burdensome to the jurisdiction and very costly," said Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.       

Moreover, critics argue that federal intervention makes police officers less aggressive in combating crime, leading to an inadvertent rise in criminal activity and undermining public safety.        

A 2017 study of 39 cities operating under consent decrees between 1994 and 2016 found that the reforms were "associated" with an uptick in some crimes, especially property crimes.

"It appears that external regulation of American police departments may come with some costly growing pains," the authors wrote.       

A 2020 study by researchers at Harvard University revealed a large increase in both homicides and total crime rates in five cities — Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Riverside, California, and Ferguson, Missouri — that attracted federal scrutiny in the wake of high-profile fatal shootings of African Americans. In 22 other cities that the researchers examined, homicides and total crime rates fell.    

Stephen Rushin, a Loyola University Chicago law professor and co-author of the 2017 study, said the uptick in crime associated with consent decrees was temporary.       

"Long term, cities that have undergone consent decrees are no worse at suppressing crime than their peer cities," Rushin wrote in an email.       

Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said consent decrees are highly effective at getting police departments to change their policies and practices.       

"You see that those departments are now not routinely violating people's civil rights," said Smith, a former chief of the Justice Department's Special Litigation Section. "You also see some collateral benefits in each of those cities. You've seen the use of force by police go down fairly dramatically. You've seen a real [decline in] the arrests for minor crimes. That's what those consent decrees are really designed to do."   

Protesters breach a line of police atop the Crescent City Connection bridge, which spans the Mississippi River in New Orleans.
FILE - Protesters breach a line of police atop the Crescent City Connection bridge, which spans the Mississippi River in New Orleans, June 3, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd.

Take, for example, the New Orleans Police Department, once considered one of the most corrupt and racially biased in the country. In the eight years since entering into a consent decree with the Justice Department, it has transformed itself into what officials tout as a national leader in policing.  

The consent decree has led to more than 200 new policies, from revised police use of dogs to how the department investigates officers involved in shootings. A new police unit investigates all officer-involved shootings. Police shootings of individuals dropped from nine in 2013 to zero in 2018, according to a court-appointed monitoring team.  

There were no unjustified shootings of individuals in 2017 and 2018.  And while the number rose in 2019, the monitor noted that in the four deadly incidents in 2019, officers were not the first to fire their weapons. 

Thanks to the reforms, public opinion surveys conducted in recent years have shown that "officers, detainees and the community continue to perceive NOPD as moving in the right direction," according to a 2019 report by the monitor.  

The department hasn't reached full compliance — bias-free policing, community engagement, stops, searches and arrests all need improvement, according to Jonathan Aronie, the lead monitor. But if the department continues to make progress, it could be declared fully compliant by the end of July, Aronie said in March. 

Smith said confidence in police in other cities operating under consent decrees, such as Seattle and Los Angeles, has similarly improved. But Chicago, which has been under a consent decree since 2018, is a different story.  

People confront police officers during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, Saturday, May 30, 2020. Protests…
FILE - People confront police officers during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, May 30, 2020.

A 2019-2020 survey found that while Chicagoans rated their police department more positively than negatively, there was "an alarming disparity" between responses to how the police treated the population as a whole and how they treated young Black men. 

"There was a perceived lack of fairness in how the CPD treats specific populations identified by the consent decree," the court-appointed monitor wrote in a court filing.  "People reported a large deficit of trust in the CPD in general." 

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