“It gave a sense of hope that a fair arbitrator is about to be involved and engaged, and the arbitrator has the authority and the power and the willingness to act if they find something that is wrong,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City Branch of the NAACP.
As America again finds itself riven by violent demonstrations over the killing of a black man, this time in Minneapolis, Attorney General William P. Barr is facing increasing calls to initiate a similar probe, known as a “pattern-or-practice” investigation, of that city’s police department. But the Trump administration has severely curtailed the practice — along with other efforts to force broad police reforms or quell civil unrest — as the Justice Department’s posture has shifted to one that is far more deferential to law enforcement.
“The impact is what we’re witnessing all across this country today,” Pruitt said.
The Justice Department has initiated a civil rights investigation into the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But Barr has not responded to calls — including from all Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee — for a broader pattern-or-practice investigation, which can produce a court-enforceable reform agreement. In his most recent public comments, Barr has not focused on what happened to Floyd — whose cries of “I can’t breathe” were captured on video as a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes — but instead promised a crackdown on the violence at protests sweeping the country as a result.
President Trump said Monday in a televised address that he was “sickened and revolted” by Floyd’s death but focused most of his comments on wanting to end rioting. “I will fight to protect you,” he said. “I am your president of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”
On Monday, a senior Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Barr had directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to send riot teams to Miami and the District of Columbia. He also sent the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team to assist local police Sunday night. A Justice Department spokeswoman said Monday that the department had deployed all of its components to work in the District in coordination with the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security.
Civil rights leaders say the moves seem to be part of a persistent pattern of Trump taking an approach that backs law enforcement without regard to the systemic problems that lead to discrimination against black people.
In addition to curtailing pattern-or-practice investigations, the Justice Department in the Trump administration ended another program that helped scrutinize shortcomings in police departments. That program allowed the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, to assess departments and work with them voluntarily on reform.
The administration also has repeatedly sought to slash or eliminate funding for various community policing or service organizations, including the Community-Based Violence Prevention Program, and the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service.
The Justice Department has described that latter office, created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as its “peacemaker,” dedicated to assisting state and local units of government, private and public organizations, and community groups to address conflicts arising from differences of race, color and national origin. The Trump administration has proposed moving it into the Civil Rights Division.
Congress, though, has largely rejected Trump’s attempt to eliminate these programs. And even before Trump took office, President Barack Obama squeezed budget levels for those programs and others, such as the Legal Services Corp.
“I think what has happened is that our focus on addressing the systemic issue has stopped,” said Ron Davis, who headed the COPS office in the Obama era.
On the day of his inauguration, Trump urged a far harder-edged stance on crime than his predecessor, and the White House posted online what now seems like an ominous warning. “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter,” it read. Months later, speaking to law enforcement officers in Long Island, the president suggested that police could mistreat those in their custody.
“When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said, miming the physical motion of an officer shielding a suspect’s head to keep it from bumping against the squad car.
“Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head,” Trump continued. “I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
Even before the recent unrest, Trump and his allies have suggested that police are not being treated appropriately.
Communities “have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves,” Barr said at an awards ceremony for policing in December. “And if communities don’t give that support and respect, they may find themselves without the police protection they need.”
Pattern-or-practice cases — which are separate from individual incidents of alleged wrongdoing involving officers — were a significant pillar of the Obama administration. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during those years opened 25 investigations into local law enforcement agencies across the country, and enforced 14 court-approved consent decrees mandating reforms. A Washington Post review in 2015 of such interventions found that they led to modernized policies, equipment and training, but produced mixed results on the use of force. Civil rights leaders say they are a necessary tool — and one that Trump’s Justice Department has essentially abandoned.
“This is a Justice Department that both by action and rhetoric has completely walked away from any responsibility it has — in part mandated by Congress — to ensure constitutional policing around the country,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration, who now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
A Justice Department spokesman noted that the probes have not gone away entirely — pointing to a pattern-or-practice case initiated last year into the former narcotics unit of the Springfield, Mass., police department. The Justice Department in the Trump administration also has initiated civil rights cases involving prisons in New Jersey and Alabama, and inked an agreement to end an Obama-era investigation into the Ville Platte, La., police department and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The curtailing of such investigations began long before Barr was attorney general. Weeks after he was confirmed in 2017, then-
Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Justice Department to review all such agreements. He wrote in a memorandum that it was not the federal government’s job to manage local law enforcement agencies, saying they instead required “local control and local accountability.”
Consent decrees add some teeth to the reform process. A federal court is able to intervene if they are violated, and independent monitors often watch over the changes. Such agreements have been reached with cities including Baltimore, Los Angeles and New Orleans. But Sessions was a vocal opponent of decrees, calling them “dangerous,” and shortly before he was fired in 2018, he signed another memorandum limiting the Justice Department’s ability to utilize these agreements going forward.
“Police departments are not investigated under this administration,” said Christy Lopez, who led the Justice Department group investigating police departments under the Obama administration.
Advocates for criminal justice reform have praised consent decrees, and local law enforcement leaders have also welcomed them, as have police unions.
Earlier this year, Barr did convene — on Trump’s orders — a new national commission to study issues in law enforcement, such as training and data collection. But even that commission has been controversial. Its members come entirely from law enforcement, drawing complaints that civil rights viewpoints were excluded. In April, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit, arguing that it violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act in part because its membership was not fairly balanced.
Lopez called the law enforcement commission “quite literally worse than useless,” saying it was “running counter to the more progressive voices in policing.” The commission has had several meetings, and on Thursday, it took testimony on civil rights issues, including from Farhio Khalif, president of the St. Paul, Minn., NAACP.
“There’s no trust in the black community,” Khalif told members. “My hope to you, commissioners, is that we must come together as a humanity united.”