A group of civil liberties organizations is asking the Justice Department to turn over documents on its efforts to expose and force changes at troubled police departments — efforts which have been significantly curtailed since Jeff Sessions took over as attorney general.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the ACLU sent three Freedom of Information Act requests to the department Thursday — asking for documents on civil rights investigations and reform agreements with law enforcement agencies and all correspondence the department's Community Oriented Policing Services office has had with those agencies and police unions.
The organizations also asked for information on staffing and funding levels for the Civil Rights Division, which typically investigates police departments and officers accused of wrongdoing, and on information related to in-custody deaths. The organizations say they want to examine whether the department is continuing to protect people from unlawful policing and promote police reform.
"This Department of Justice has consistently discarded critical tools to help struggling police departments reform their illegal policies and practices, pulling the rug out from under community members and law enforcement agencies who rely on the department's expertise to create real change," said Sherrilyn Ifill, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's president. "Our FOIA requests demand that the Justice Department simply provide information to the public on the technical assistance and enforcement activities it is undertaking so that local communities can get on with the hard and necessary work of policing reform that the department has chosen to abandon."
The Justice Department under President Obama was particularly aggressive in promoting police reforms, launching broad probes into police practices at troubled law enforcement agencies across the country negotiating court-enforceable agreements to mandate change. Sessions, though, has taken a different tack — indicating a willingness to prosecute individual officers who do wrong but abandoning efforts to use the federal government's power to spur wider change.
He has said his aim is to improve police morale and allow officers to fight violent crime without fear of being shamed or second guessed.
Not two months into his tenure, Sessions ordered department officials to review its agreements with troubled police forces nationwide, and he tried unsuccessfully to back out of one such pact with the city of Baltimore. He also said he would end the practice of using the department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to investigative and publicize the shortcomings of police departments, some of which had seemed eager for the federal intervention.
Sessions's Justice Department in December awarded a $7 million grant to the International Association of Chiefs of Police to create a technical assistance center to help local police.