DOJ Revives Its Oversight Of Police With Major Probes In Two High-Profile Cities

US Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC on April 26, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Monday that the Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation into the policing practices of Louisville, Kentucky, which have been under public scrutiny since last year’s killing of Breonna Taylor.

The investigation is the second so-called pattern-or-practice investigation the Justice Department has announced in recent days, in what has been a sharp turn away from the Trump Justice Department’s antipathy towards systematic reviews of local police departments.

“Those investigations, and the recommendations and actions that ensue, do not only protect individuals’ civil rights,” Garland said. “They also assist police departments in developing measures to increase transparency and accountability.” 

Taylor, a 26-year old Black emergency medical technician, was killed by a police officer who was executing a no-knock warrant on her home. Questions have been raised about not only the officers who fired the shots that killed Taylor, but also about the detectives who sought the search warrant for her apartment,

Garland referenced Taylor while noting that the Louisville Metro Police Department had already agreed to take on some reforms in an agreement it reached with Taylor’s family. The DOJ’s investigation will assess whether the Louisville MPD has engaged in unlawful search warrants, Garland said. The probe will also look at its use of force during peaceful protests; its practices around stops, searches and seizures; its compliance with the American with Disabilities Act; and whether it engaged in conduct that has been discriminatory on the basis of race.

Garland said that the Justice Department had already briefed local officials about the launch of the probe and that both Mayor Greg Fischer and Police Department Chief Erika Shields had pledged cooperation.

Last week, the Justice Department unveiled the launch of a civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department — with an announcement timed for after the verdict came down in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who was found guilty of murdering George Floyd.

These wide-ranging federal investigations of local police forces tend to be thorough and labor-intensive. They’re spearheaded by career DOJ officials, though political-appointees make the decisions that arise at key inflection points.

Under President Trump, DOJ leadership including Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr expressed scorn towards the consent decrees between the DOJ and local police departments that these investigations often produced. Sessions and Barr took steps to limit the Justice Department’s ability to reach such reform agreements. In the days leading up to the announcement of the Minneapolis investigation, Garland reversed some of those Trump-era restrictions on DOJ oversight of local police.

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