fb-pixel Skip to main content

Policing the police makes a comeback

Merrick Garland is putting the Justice Department back in the watchdog game.

US 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, on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.Pool/Getty

Next month will mark the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street.

It was the case that — at least for a time — awakened a nation to the everyday horror of racism and the too frequent lawlessness of law enforcement. It was the case that was supposed to change policing forever.

But has it? Yes, the officer who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of murder on Tuesday. But for policing in American cities ever to actually change, reform efforts spurred by Floyd’s death can’t stop now.

State by state, during the past year there has been progress on use-of-force policies, on police certification and decertification, and on issues of accountability.


Just last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland moved to unleash the Justice Department’s most powerful tool against those police departments that have proved unwilling or unable to police themselves.

And there’s new pressure on Congress to act. The George Floyd Act, passed by the House for the first time last June — just a month after Floyd’s death — and again last month on a 220-212 vote, would make it easier for victims to sue police for misconduct by limiting the qualified immunity police now enjoy. It would set up a national registry for all federal, state, and local police that would include complaints of misconduct, disciplinary records, and records of firing; mandate training aimed at halting racial and religious profiling; and ban the use of choke holds and no-knock warrants.

A recent poll by Vox/Data for Progress found clear majorities of Americans in support of most of those key provisions — including the choke hold ban (71 percent), mandated body cameras for federal officers (84 percent), a prohibition on racial profiling (71 percent), and an end to qualified immunity (59 percent).


Still, the largely party-line House vote portends a similar reception in the Senate, where Democrats would not only have to hold every one of their members in line but also pick up 10 Republican votes to avoid death by filibuster.

Meanwhile, the notable progress at the state and local level must continue.

Since last May more than 30 states, including Massachusetts, have enacted more than 140 new laws aimed at reforming police departments and providing increased oversight, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For example, 16 states have limited the use of the neck restraints, five have put limits on no-knock warrants, 10 have mandated or provided new funding for body cameras, and four have put limits on qualified immunity. The Massachusetts legislation does all four.

Those horrified by the video released last month of the Windsor, Va., police traffic stop of US Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario, at which he was threatened and pepper-sprayed by the now-fired Officer Joe Gutierrez, can take some comfort in the fact that a new policing law took effect in Virginia on March 1. The incident, which took place last December, would today be grounds for the decertification of Gutierrez and probably mean penalties for his partner for not intervening to stop the assault.

Certainly not all states will be examining their consciences — and their records of police misconduct — with the same lens. But even absent a new federal law and federally mandated standards, the Justice Department — now under the far more capable management of Merrick Garland — has its own powerful tools to fight systemic racism and abuse of police authority. A day after the Chauvin conviction, Garland proved he is not reluctant to use those tools, opening a “pattern or practice” investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department.


Last week, Garland set the stage for that move by rescinding a 2018 order issued by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that had drastically limited DOJ’s use of consent decrees to mandate reforms in local police departments found to be abusing their authority. Prior to that, the Obama Justice Department had opened investigations into 25 local police departments and entered into consent decrees with 14 of them, including Ferguson, Mo., following the killing of Michael Brown, and Baltimore, following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray.

Months before Sessions redrew the rules on such probes, then-US Attorney Andrew Lelling initiated an investigation into the Springfield Police Department’s Narcotics Bureau. The report, issued last July, found the bureau had engaged in “excessive force” that was “directly attributable to systemic deficiencies in policies, which fail to require detailed and consistent use-of-force reporting.” No final agreement has been reached between the Springfield PD and the Justice Department.

This memorandum makes clear that the Department will use all appropriate legal authorities to safeguard civil rights and protect the environment, consistent with longstanding Departmental practice and informed by the expertise of the Department’s career workforce,” Garland said in his memo.


Police departments, of course, aren’t the only potential targets of Justice Department consent decrees. (For example, an agreement has yet to be reached with the Massachusetts Department of Correction in the wake of a similar probe of its treatment of inmates with mental illness.) But the news that this powerful tool is back in the arsenal of Justice Department weapons is indeed good news for the future of policing in this nation.

There will always be state and local governments that step up and do the right thing. For those that don’t — for those that use the “one rotten apple” excuse while ignoring the rot within — there will now be a remedy.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.