The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For police agencies seeking change, Justice offers a resource center

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta unveils ‘National Law Enforcement Knowledge Lab’ in Los Angeles

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta speaks with Los Angeles Police Chief Michel R. Moore at LAPD Headquarters in Los Angeles on Wednesday. (Allison Zaucha/For The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — The Justice Department announced that it is creating an online portal and resource center that aims to improve policing by providing law enforcement agencies and the public access to federal reports, training, academic research and subject-matter experts.

Officials described the “National Law Enforcement Knowledge Lab” as an attempt to compile a one-stop shop of information and best practices that are scattered across federal agencies and outside organizations. The goal is to create a road map for police departments seeking to implement reforms at a time when concern about violent crime is causing some jurisdictions to rethink efforts to overhaul policing.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta unveiled the initiative during a kickoff event in California’s largest city, where dozens of police officials and community leaders gathered for two days of workshops to develop ideas. The Justice Department is collaborating with the National Policing Institute, a nonprofit policy organization, and 21st Century Policing Solutions, an outside consultant, to build the portal, which will be overseen by the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

A rural prosecutor pledged reform. Critics say he delivered disaster.

At a time of rising gun violence and homicides, and nearly two years after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were followed by nationwide calls to reimagine law enforcement, federal officials said they want to help communities combat crime by building trust between police and residents.

In her remarks, Gupta said she had recognized the need for a centralized portal since her stint overseeing Justice’s civil rights division during the Obama administration. She pledged that the Knowledge Lab “will not just end up being a one-and-done website that will live on the Internet,” saying the project had “game-changing” potential.

Though Attorney General Merrick Garland has opened sweeping pattern or practice investigations into police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville, Phoenix and Mount Vernon, N.Y., such probes are costly and time-consuming. The lab will be available free of charge to local jurisdictions. It is the department’s latest effort to foster voluntary collaboration with the nation’s 18,000 state, municipal and tribal law enforcement agencies. Justice officials last month launched the Collaborative Reform Initiative, which offers law enforcement agencies technical assistance from federal experts.

Jim Pasco, the executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said his organization endorsed the idea of a Knowledge Lab in conversations with Justice officials last year. He described the concept as “not prescriptive, but reflective of the best thinking.”

“It’s not mandated,” Pasco said. “But it’s training and advice and information that will be available to anyone in the law enforcement community who asks for it.”

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said that after Garland announced the Minneapolis investigation last year, his group pressed Justice Department leaders to take on an educational and preventive role so local departments know what is expected.

Civil rights groups have given mixed reviews to the Biden administration’s efforts on criminal justice so far — applauding the return of Justice Department probes of police civil rights violations but decrying the lack of action on a promised executive order that would tighten rules for police. On Tuesday, President Biden fulfilled a campaign promise, commuting the sentences of 75 nonviolent drug offenders in an effort to address long-standing disparities in criminal penalties.

Why Biden's executive order on policing is still up in the air

Advocates have expressed concern that the police revision programs being offered by Justice could become ways for local police chiefs or mayors to try to to circumvent federal investigations, which typically result in court-mandated consent decrees that force agencies to make broad changes.

But Garland and Gupta say Justice will continue to use its investigatory powers as well. This month, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the civil rights division, announced a federal consent decree with police in Springfield, Mass., after a two-year investigation found that officers in the department’s narcotics unit had repeatedly used excessive force, including kicking and spitting on a juvenile.

Justice officials and some police representatives said a benefit of the collaborative programs is that local police officials are more likely to view them as supportive, not punitive. Gupta unveiled the Knowledge Lab effort at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters. Police leaders in attendance included Los Angeles Chief Michel R. Moore and Louisville Chief Erika Shields, whose department is undergoing a Justice Department pattern or practice investigation.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, whose department is operating under its second federal consent order, sent a video expressing support.

Community groups and civil rights organizations will have a hand in developing the portal and continued access to its information and resources, officials said. The portal will house a wide array of information, including reports from federal consent decree monitors and detailed reform plans from jurisdictions that have made progress. In some cases, Knowledge Lab consultants could be sent to help local jurisdictions directly.

“We use the tool of enforcement to prosecute individual officers who willfully violate the law, and we enter into settlements and consent decrees to remedy systemic patterns or practices of unconstitutional conduct,” Gupta said. “But our experience has taught us that these enforcement actions — as critical as they are — cannot and will not resolve the pressing issues that our communities now face. In a nation of 18,000 law enforcement agencies, we will not enforce or litigate our way to fair policing and safe communities.”