The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Justice Dept., police reform means partnership as much as punishment

Longtime civil rights advocates who hold top jobs in President Biden’s administration aim for a middle ground on policing

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta chats with government officials on April 26 in Los Angeles. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

LOS ANGELES — Thirty years after four officers were acquitted in the beating of motorist Rodney King, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta arrived at Los Angeles police headquarters to make a pitch for police reform.

King’s case spurred Congress to grant the Justice Department landmark powers to investigate police departments that show a pattern of misconduct. But Gupta was here to make an appeal, not a threat. In a nation of 18,000 police agencies, she said, the federal government can’t force broad change solely through enforcement or litigation. That can only come with collaboration.

“Together,” she said, “we’re going to tackle the most pressing issues.”

Gupta was urging police to seek help from a new Justice Department resource center. Her message highlighted the failures and limitations of the police reform movement over the past three decades.

Despite federal probes of more than three dozen jurisdictions, police still fatally shoot about 1,000 civilians a year, a disproportionate number of them Black and many unarmed, according to data collected and analyzed by The Washington Post. The killings in 2020 of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, in particular, were followed by widespread public outrage over police violence and the relative lack of consequences for many who commit it.

Two years later: Those who protested after Floyd's killing reflect on what has changed

The question is how to change that reality at a time when rising gun violence and deep political polarization have complicated the Biden administration’s push for greater police accountability — and after the collapse of legislation in Congress that would have banned chokeholds and no-knock warrants, prohibited racial profiling and eliminated qualified immunity for officers.

A big piece of the answer, Justice officials say, is convincing police to take ownership of the push for change.

A longtime civil rights lawyer, Gupta oversaw many of the Obama administration’s “pattern or practice” investigations into systemic police misconduct — including in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Chicago — while serving as the head of Justice’s civil rights division from 2014 to 2017. Those probes led to court-mandated consent decrees that placed each jurisdiction on a detailed reform plan.

While the Trump administration essentially banned consent decrees — launching only one pattern-and-practice investigation in four years — Attorney General Merrick Garland has revived them since President Biden took office, opening investigations into police agencies in Minneapolis, Louisville, Phoenix and Mount Vernon, N.Y., so far.

But Gupta cautions that policing won’t fundamentally change if federal efforts are primarily “antagonistic.” Police agencies, she said, must feel invested in their own success, and getting there requires “more than a single tool.”

“Usually, pattern or practice is when there’s systemwide breakdowns,” Gupta said in an interview. “But there’s a lot of police departments that are looking for guidance on best de-escalation policies and use of force. We’ve got to have a way to reach many more police departments.”

Justice Dept. updates its rules on use of force by agents for first time since 2004

The police resource center Gupta unveiled last month — called a “knowledge lab” — is supposed to do just that: compiling best practices, including data, reports, training programs and academic research, for broad distribution to police and the public. Gupta called it a “potential game changer.”

Justice officials also have high hopes for a collaborative reform initiative developed by the Obama administration, shut down under Donald Trump and revamped once Democrats returned to the White House. Under that program, run by the office of Community Oriented Policing, police chiefs can voluntarily sign up for targeted help on specific issues, such as reducing gun violence or supporting officer wellness — or they can seek technical assistance with crisis management, use-of-force policies or a broad organizational reassessment.

Some police leaders expressed relief that the Justice Department has been less heavy-handed than they expected when Biden took office.

“I’m encouraged that this administration is trying to find a balance,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said. “They have a bully pulpit to influence through edict, but also through guidance and through financial incentives and through collaboration.”

In a meeting with Gupta, Moore detailed his efforts to hire hundreds of officers at a time when police departments are struggling with severe staffing vacancies and low morale. Moore said his department is working with a police foundation on a two-year rent subsidy program for recruits to help offset the high costs of housing in Los Angeles.

Gupta suggested they follow up on the issue and indicated the Justice Department is interested in promoting effective initiatives. “This is a problem we’re hearing about everywhere,” she said.

From Sandy Hook to Buffalo: 10 years of failure on gun control

Justice officials said it is too early to tell how many departments will sign up for the collaborative initiatives, and some community activists have expressed skepticism. A voluntary partnership Justice struck with the Baltimore police department in 2014 was derailed eight months later, when Freddie Gray, a Black man, was fatally injured in police custody. Federal investigators then opened a pattern or practice investigation, leading to a court-approved consent decree in 2017.

“I feel like nothing that we put on paper can change the culture of policing until the federal government calls for consequences for misconduct,” said Ray C. Kelly, executive director of the Citizens Policing Project, which advocates for police reform in Baltimore. “We can write whatever we want on paper; does that actually lead to police doing something different on the street? The point is, it’s voluntary.”

Support for police — and for policing changes

The Justice Department has significantly increased grant funding for police agencies, distributing $750 million this year — much of which targets hiring — up from $580 million in the final year of the Trump administration. Biden has proposed doubling funding for local police hiring in fiscal 2023. In his State of the Union address, he pointedly rejected the “defund the police” message pushed by Black Lives Matter.

Republicans, however, still accuse him of being soft on crime.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in April, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) pressed Garland on gang violence in Chicago, demanding that the attorney general vocalize support for stop-and-frisk strategies to “get guns off the street.”

Garland, who visited Chicago last summer to announce a new program to target gun trafficking, told Kennedy that the federal government’s role is to offer technical expertise and resources. Local leaders should determine policies, he said. “There’s no one solution that fits all.”

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said Justice leaders have occupied a middle ground in the law-enforcement debate, including helping to negotiate details of an executive order on policing that Biden is expected to unveil Wednesday — the second anniversary of Floyd’s death.

“You’re actually seeing a lot being done, but you’re seeing it be done in a far more sophisticated way,” Pasco said. “My sense is that it’s not all about picking winners or losers, but about improving the relationship between the officers and the communities they serve — but not at the expense of public safety.”

Book excerpt: How George Floyd spent his final hours

At the same time, civil rights advocates have grown frustrated over the pace of reform. In March, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — where Gupta served as president from 2017 to 2021 — wrote that the Biden administration “has failed to deliver on its campaign promises to enact true accountability and transformative change.”

The report praised Garland for reinstating consent decrees and allowing some prisoners to remain on home confinement after the end of the coronavirus pandemic emergency. But it said the administration “must do much more to prioritize policies and agency changes that would end harms caused by the federal criminal-legal system.”

Advocates across the country have petitioned Justice to open more police investigations. Last fall, Roc Nation, the social justice group founded by entertainment mogul Jay-Z, published an open letter addressed to Gupta in major newspapers, pleading for a federal probe into the Kansas City, Kan., police department over decades of alleged misconduct by former detectives.

Justice officials said they review all requests and consider a host of factors, including media reports and public records, before making decisions.

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, praised Justice officials for successfully prosecuting three former Minneapolis officers in February for violating George Floyd’s civil rights. But he pointed to the lack of federal charges in the police killings of Taylor and of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl in Columbus, Ohio, who was shot last year as she threatened to stab a housemate.

The sole officer charged by Kentucky state prosecutors in connection with Taylor’s shooting was acquitted in March of endangering her neighbors.

At the request of Columbus officials, the Justice Department is conducting a review of the city’s police policies. But that probe is being handled by the Office of Community Oriented Policing, which lacks litigation authority.

“Systemic problems require systemic solutions, and in that category, we knew it would take some time,” Mitchell said. “But progress has moved at a glacial pace.”

The struggle to build trust

Garland views bolstering public trust in police as crucial to developing effective crime-fighting strategies, a lesson he says he learned while prosecuting violent drug crimes as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s.

“You can’t get witnesses to testify if they don’t trust the police,” Garland said. “We speak to police agencies constantly here … because our whole model for protecting the community is partnership.”

Wade Henderson, who served as interim president of the Leadership Conference until stepping down in April, said civil rights leaders remain supportive of Justice’s efforts. After an internal policy review led by Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco, the department banned federal agents from using chokeholds in most cases and began requiring them to wear body cameras on preplanned operations, hoping to set an example for local police agencies.

Garland “acknowledged that his hope going forward is that they would be able to address some of the issues our report has identified,” Henderson said. He added that “there is a recognition that Congress is a barrier to addressing many of those concerns.”

Two years after Floyd's death, Minnesotans say little has changed

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the civil rights division, said the department has been strategic in weighing opportunities for pattern or practice investigations, which are resource-intensive and typically take up to 18 months to complete. She noted that investigators are probing departments that range in size from Phoenix, with 2,775 officers, to Mount Vernon, N.Y., with just 200 — suggesting the approach sends a message that no jurisdiction is outside the scope of federal scrutiny.

“I don’t think we can ignore the moment,” said Clarke, who previously served as head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and, like Gupta, faced nearly unanimous opposition from Republicans over her nomination. “We are on the heels of some of the largest demonstrations and protests that we’ve seen in modern history. I understand the sense of urgency.”

The federal investigations have had mixed results, taking years to complete and costing local jurisdictions millions of dollars in fees for federal monitors. Last fall, Garland announced new rules to cap costs and limit the length of the consent decrees, hoping to bolster public confidence.

“I always try to tamp down expectations,” Gupta said. “At the press conferences, I say, ‘Change doesn’t happen overnight.’ … Ultimately, the work has to happen in local communities, and folks have to be committed for the long haul.”

One example is the partnership formed by the Los Angeles police and civic activist Connie Rice, who helped represent Rodney King’s family after his death. During Gupta’s trip to Los Angeles, Rice described how she spent years suing the police in court before shifting strategies and pursuing projects with police leadership. Those efforts helped lead to the launch of the Community Safety Partnership in 2010, in which officers provided additional services to public housing residents as a way to build trust.

In an interview, Rice called the Justice Department’s efforts at collaboration “the art of the possible at a time when we’re not able to get anything done” in Congress.

“This is about the hearts and minds of policing — and no court order can change that. It has to be done by cops,” Rice said. “We have to become partners with the people who have the cultural and professional and internal clout and influence to point the department in a different direction.”

Loading...