Trust is a fragile commodity, easily broken and difficult to rebuild without painstakingly careful and determined work.
And its supply from wide swaths of Black America was short when Attorney General Merrick Garland took the reins of a Justice Department that had largely abdicated its role as a watchdog for the nation’s local police departments to ensure that officers didn’t violate the constitutional and legal rights of those in the communities they serve. The repeated images of Black Americans being killed by police and self-styled vigilantes had caused as much anxiety and trauma to communities of color over the previous year as the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week, as the Justice Department announced a wide-ranging probe to determine whether Louisville, Ky., and its police department engaged in a “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations — spurred in part by the police shooting death of Breonna Taylor — Garland put the issue of trust front and center.
That investigation and a similar probe of police in Minneapolis in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, “do not only protect individuals’ civil rights, they also assist police departments in developing measures to increase transparency and accountability,” Garland said Monday.
“Those qualities are necessary in building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Garland continued. “And community trust is essential to making policing more effective, and less dangerous to officers on the street.”
The swift opening of those investigations, as well as this week’s indictments of a former police officer and his son on federal hate crime charges for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in a coastal Georgia community as he was taking a jog last year, are a signal that Garland takes the issue of trust seriously.
The charges in Arbery’s killing are not facially about policing. Former cop Gregory McMichael was no longer a police officer when, according to the federal indictment, he and his son, Travis, “armed themselves with firearms, got into a truck and chased Arbery through the public streets of the neighborhood while yelling at Arbery, using their truck to cut off his route and threatening him with firearms.”
Then they, along with William “Roddie” Bryan, who was also indicted for interference with civil rights and attempted kidnapping, “used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.” Travis then fired the shotgun blasts that killed Arbery, according to prosecutors. All three are already in jail awaiting trial on state murder charges.
The case spurred Georgia, one of only four states at the time without a hate crime statute of its own, to enact one — though it came too late to apply to those charged for Arbery’s killing.
But the horrific incident, captured on video like so many other killings, also raises disturbing questions, like why local police declined for months to bring charges against the three men, despite pleas from Arbery’s family. State prosecutors stepped in after an attorney for one of the defendants released the video publicly. Arbery’s family has filed a civil lawsuit against the police department.
Garland’s robust use so far of the Justice Department’s oversight authority of local law enforcement practices is a signal to police departments across the nation that they could face consequences for violating the civil rights of citizens or for covering up for the citizens who do.
It’s a strong opening swing, but the proof — and the trust — comes from the follow-through.
He can further that trust by also probing the police departments in Brunswick, Ga., where Arbery was killed, and — as city officials have requested — in Columbus, Ohio, where 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by police last week.
The Justice Department can swiftly complete and publicly release the results of an ongoing probe into the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back and by police in Kenosha, Wisc., leaving him partially paralyzed.
And the Senate can do its part by confirming Kristen Clarke, the eminently qualified career-long civil rights attorney nominated by President Biden to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, whose nomination has been stalled by GOP lawmakers just as clear leadership in that division is needed more.
Trust takes time. As welcome as Garland’s most recent actions are, they are only a starting point. But they do, at the very least, signal winds of change that flow in the direction of justice.