House Democrats on Tuesday issued a sweeping request for documents related to the Justice Department’s oversight of local police departments to assess the extent to which the agency has abandoned efforts to force reforms during the Trump administration.
In a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and fellow committee Democrats requested copies of documents and internal emails related to the department’s handling of consent decrees and “patterns and practices” investigations, during which federal investigators probe police departments accused of civil rights violations.
While the Obama administration, in response to growing concern nationally about police shootings and alleged police misconduct, aggressively pursued such investigations as a means to overhaul troubled departments, the process has been largely abandoned since Trump’s election.
“Despite continuing concerns from civil rights and community-based organizations, the Department has sharply curtailed its statutory role in identifying and eradicating civil rights abuses by law enforcement,” Nadler wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “Excessive force in police-civilian encounters presents a crisis of trust throughout our nation. Changes to Department policy and failure to uphold the law run the risk of undermining federal oversight authority in this space. ”
A Justice Department spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
Citing The Post’s ongoing effort to track fatal police shootings, Nadler noted that 992 people were shot and killed by police in 2018 and that hundreds more had been shot and killed by police so far in 2019.
The request — the latest oversight step taken by the new Democratic House majority this year — comes as lawmakers continue a constitutional showdown with the White House over their requests for the full, unredacted report on the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election, its underlying investigative material and copies of President Trump’s tax returns.
During the Obama administration, the Justice Department opened 25 investigations of local law enforcement agencies — including in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New Orleans and Ferguson, Mo. — and was enforcing 14 consent decrees and other overhaul agreements.
But in one of his first acts in office, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime critic of the consent-decree process, ordered a review of all existing police reform agreements. Sessions said it was necessary to ensure such efforts did not work against the administration’s goals of promoting officer safety and morale and fighting violent crime.
Then, 20 months later — in a final act before his resignation in November — Sessions issued a memo making it more difficult for the department to enter consent-decree agreements and requiring that any such agreements automatically sunset after three years.
Barr said at his confirmation hearing in January that he agreed with Sessions’s policy on consent decrees, though he also questioned whether it would make the use of consent decrees more difficult. “Of course, the department has a role in pattern and practice violations,” he asserted.
In response to inquiries from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Barr promised — within his first 90 days in office — to provide lawmakers with a list of all consent decrees the department had withdrawn from since Sessions imposed the policy. He said he would similarly provide a list of all decrees from which he withdrew and meet with civil rights leaders within his first 120 days to hear their concerns. A Justice Department official said that a listening session has been scheduled with civil rights leaders on June 4 and that invitations have been distributed.
The rollback has infuriated civil rights advocates and frustrated local officials in places where investigations had been launched — some of whom had voluntarily requested federal oversight as a means of soothing community tensions after controversial incidents. In a 200-page report issued in November, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged the Trump administration to resume federal police reform efforts.
Nadler is requesting Justice Department documents and internal communications related to Sessions’s March 2017 memo ordering a review of established consent decrees and his November memo.
The letter requests a detailed accounting of any federal probes that were closed as a result of Sessions’s review, details of any changes made to previously negotiated consent decrees or other reform agreements, and documents related to the department’s decision to “retreat” from an existing agreement with the Chicago Police Department.
House Democrats also want the Justice Department to produce copies of any new requests it has received concerning possible local police abuses and an accounting of which, if any, prompted new federal investigations.