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‘It means open season:’ Under Trump, the Justice Department has largely stopped investigating police departments for systemic abuses

In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Ferguson, Mo, after the killing of Michael Brown.
In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Ferguson, Mo, after the killing of Michael Brown.Pablo Martinez Monsivais

WASHINGTON — In Chicago, the investigators in 2017 said police officers shot at moving vehicles with no justification, and endangered young people by bringing them to rival gang territory and leaving them there.

In Seattle, they wrote in 2011, two police officers tasered and beat a mentally ill man in the middle of a crisis, leaving him with a brain injury.

And in Baltimore, where the investigators in 2016 found a full 91 percent of people arrested for trespassing or failure to obey were Black, they said officers punched and pepper-sprayed a juvenile after they accused him and his sister of loitering; they were standing in front of their own home.

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In each case the investigators involved were from the US Department of Justice, and in all three cities they determined the local police department had systematically deprived citizens of their constitutional rights — findings that set the stage for those cities to enter into court-enforced reform plans, known as consent decrees.

For 20 years, investigations like those, and the consent decrees that followed, were key to federal efforts to bring more accountability to policing in the United States, especially during the Obama administration. But as the nation reckons again with racism and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Trump administration is all but out of the business of systemic police reform.

Since President Trump took office, the Justice Department has sharply curbed its use of investigations and consent decrees, essentially locking those powerful tools in its toolbox. What’s more, the president himself has made multiple public statements that suggest he does not see police accountability as a high priority. And some former Justice Department officials and other criminal justice experts see a connection between the vacuum of accountability at the highest levels of government and the ongoing police violence that has sent Americans cascading into the streets to protest.

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“It means open season — we’re not going to be there policing what you do, and we think you’ve been hamstrung and overly restrained,” said Christy Lopez, the former deputy chief of the special litigation section in the department’s Civil Rights Division, describing her sense of the Trump administration’s stance. She led the sweeping federal investigation of police abuses in Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer shot and killed a Black teenager, Michael Brown, in 2014.

“For many of us,” Lopez said, “it’s been somewhat surprising that it’s taken this long for something terrible to happen.”

During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, the department opened 25 investigations in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and New Orleans and entered 14 consent decrees. After the killing of Brown, the investigation was considered so important that Attorney General Eric Holder himself traveled to Ferguson and talked about his own experiences getting pulled over as a Black man.

Trump, by contrast, has spoken vaguely of the need for police departments to “get better,” but he has often taken a permissive stance on policing, seeming to glory in the rough stuff. While speaking to police officers in 2017, he joked that they didn’t need to protect suspects’ heads while putting them in a squad car.

His first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, expressed deep opposition to consent decrees, saying they took away too much local control. He tried unsuccessfully to delay the consent decree in Baltimore, opposed the one that ultimately took effect in Chicago, and, on his last day in office, made it much more difficult for the department to enter new consent decrees.

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The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Overall, since Trump took office in 2017, it has opened one new pattern-and-practice investigation of a local police department, into a narcotics unit in Springfield, Mass., and entered into an agreement with the city of Ville Platte and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office, in Louisiana, to end a practice of unconstitutional arrests the department had found there. The current attorney general, William Barr, said he does not think a pattern-or-practice investigation is warranted in Minneapolis, even though former officials say it is exactly the kind of department they would have investigated under the previous administration.

“It’s one of the agencies that everyone knew was struggling,” said Jonathan Smith, the former chief of the special litigation section. “I would be shocked five years ago if we hadn’t been opening an investigation as we speak.“

Democrats like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley are calling on the department to return to these efforts. “It’s time for the DOJ Civil Rights Division to get back into the business of civil rights,” Pressley said.

But the issue has also caught the attention of Republicans senators like Roy Blunt, of Missouri, who wrote a letter to Barr last week urging him to resume investigations and allow more consent decrees.

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Over the past three years, amid a retrenchment of federal police reform efforts, some states have stepped in to fill the void, including California, Illinois, and now Minnesota, where the state’s Department of Human Rights is investigating whether the Minneapolis Police Department systemically discriminated against people of color.

And with nationwide protests over Floyd’s death continuing with calls to “defund the police” — a call to divert some police budget monies to other forms of community support — some local governments are showing a new appetite to reconsider police budgets, while school boards in cities like Minneapolis and Denver have or plan to cut off their contracts with local police.

But experts say there is no replacing the role the Justice Department has historically played in documenting systemic police abuses and developing models for fixing them — even if the results have not been perfect.

“When the federal government acts, there is national attention and over time, a national standard for what’s acceptable or unacceptable in policing gets created,” said Merrick Bobb, the executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center and the court-appointed monitor for the Seattle consent decree. “I think we’ve lost almost four years in which a number of cities could have undergone consent decrees and avoided a great deal of the bloodshed and heartache that we’ve all experienced over the last few weeks.”

In 1994, after the videotaped beating of Rodney King by police officers in Los Angeles and their subsequent acquittal on state charges fueled nationwide protest, Congress authorized the Justice Department to do broad civil rights investigations into police departments, known as “pattern or practice investigations.”

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Depending on their findings, they often then negotiate with the police department on needed reforms. The department’s progress is overseen by an independent monitor, and all parties are required to periodically check in before a judge. The oversight often lasts for years and costs millions of dollars. Even though the Justice Department has curbed new consent decrees, its lawyers are still working on the existing ones.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said that sort of outside oversight is needed in part because prosecutors have historically failed to bring charges against police officers.

“This was not a perfect solution but it is certainly better than nothing because the lack of that oversight emboldens police departments not to care,” said Rollins.

The federal investigators have only examined a tiny fraction of the nation’s 18,000 police departments, but the reports created a body of literature that showed police departments’ troubles were often not because of a bad officer or two, but systemic. And the consent decrees forced them to change under the watchful eyes of a federal judge.

A 2015 analysis by The Washington Post found that consent decrees helped police departments modernize and develop new policies, but had a mixed record on curtailing use of force.

The Justice Department’s interventions in local policing often run into fierce opposition from police unions. “Some of it I think is deserved, some it is very overbearing and makes it hard to run a police department,” said Ken Casaday, the president of the Austin Police Association in the Texas capitol.

In Ferguson, the consent decree has resulted in the dismissal of $1 million in court debt that had trapped some residents in a cycle of arrests and debt, as well as the development of new police department policies, including the duty for police officers to intervene when their colleagues use unnecessary force.

“What it provided me, especially as a new chief, was an opportunity to actually look at policies and things that were happening with an extra set of eyes,” said Delrish Moss, who was the police chief there from earlier 2016 to 2019.

Advocates in other cities say the Justice Department’s investigations helped in another way: By providing a record of abuses that can cut through local political dynamics that frequently slow reform.

“The level of detail was such that, it wasn’t something that could be dismissed in any way,” said Matt Martin, a city alderman in Chicago, where the state of Illinois stepped in to pursue a consent decree when it was clear Sessions would not. “And specifically something that could not be downplayed by city government and particularly the mayor’s office.”

Not every review by the Justice Department results in a consent decree. In Austin, investigators opened a pattern-or-practice review in 2007 after complaints about a four-year period, from 1999 to 2003, when eleven people died in encounters with police, all but one of whom were Black or Latino.

The investigators issued more than 150 recommendations to the department, but no consent decree. The overall number of people shot by police has fallen, but officers still shoot Black and Latino residents at higher rates.

“The role of the federal government is primarily oversight, and there are good examples of good work in the Obama years,” said Nelson Linder, the longtime head of the NAACP there. “Under Donald Trump, I don’t bother to call the federal government anymore because they don’t seem to be interested.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa