Among the first acts of President Trump’s Justice Department was to declare, in 2017, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
Today, even as the president bellows about sending the military into American communities to quell disturbances touched off by the killing of George Floyd, his administration is reaping the fruits of that policy and of its complete abdication of responsibility for probing police bias and misconduct.
There was a time when the Justice Department stood tall, using its considerable weight to bring needed reforms and best practices to local police departments mired in prejudice and misconduct. Now under US Attorney General William Barr —and before him, under Jeff Sessions — that era is clearly over.
And when the nation needs answers about the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor, shot to death by Louisville police officers, the DOJ is silent.
Sure, the US attorney for Minnesota has announced an investigation into Floyd’s death as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, and Barr put out a statement saying, “I am confident that justice will be served.” But all of that assumes the officer, Derek Chauvin, is simply a bad apple. It fails to address what are widely reported to be systemic problems in the department, the kinds of patterns that would be unconstitutional and warrant federal investigation.
That’s where the DOJ would come in, if Barr weren’t more consumed with clearing peaceful protestors away from the streets near the White House and with making sure people can get into church on Sunday. In the latter battle, he’s using the same statute that the Justice Department could be using to fight racism in policing.
That law goes back to 1994 and the aftermath of the brutal beating of a Black motorist, Rodney King, by four Los Angeles police officers, in 1991. The law gave the DOJ sweeping powers to file civil rights lawsuits and investigate any “pattern or practice” of discrimination in policing.
The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations did just that.
Two days after Black 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, the FBI launched an investigation. Nearly a year later, the Department of Justice issued a report detailing its findings of racial bias in both the police department and the courts. By April of 2016, the DOJ would get a consent decree (a court-approved agreement) that brought far-reaching changes to the Ferguson Police Department and to the local court system.
“The Justice Department was not perfect, but we understood our mandate: to promote accountability and constitutional policing in order to build community trust,” Vanita Gupta, who headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division at the time, wrote in a recent column for The Washington Post.
And she noted that while criminal prosecution in the Floyd case was essential, it was also “insufficient” — that systemic problems need a broad-based solution.
In fact, by the end of the Obama administration, the DOJ had secured 14 consent decrees with police departments, including Ferguson, and out-of-court settlements with four other departments
Enter Jeff Sessions, who declared, on March 31, 2017, that “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” the work of police “in keeping American communities safe.”
Congressional Democrats know this isn’t simply a lone “bad actor” problem, but the culture in too many police departments. In a letter to Barr and the head of his Civil Rights Division, members of the House Judiciary Committee asked for an investigation into recent killings. In the Floyd case, the demand included “whether it was part of a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct by the MPD.”
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and 27 of her Democratic Senate colleagues also asked Barr for an investigation “to evaluate unconstitutional patterns and practices of violent policing targeting communities of color in the Minneapolis Police Department that contributed to Mr. Floyd’s tragic and unjust death.”
That’s precisely what a Justice Department that cared about righting wrongs and about protecting civil rights would do. But this wholly owned franchise of Donald Trump, which has shown time and again it cares little about the Constitution, is more interested in pandering to police unions and the president’s political base than in pursuing justice. And all Americans — Black and white — are paying the price for their negligence.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.