The Obama Justice Department Had a Plan to Hold Police Accountable for Abuses. The Trump DOJ Has Undermined It.

The Trump administration has not aggressively enforced existing agreements to monitor abusive law enforcement agencies, emboldening them to fight reforms.
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 23: President Barack Obama walks toward Marine One on his way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana on August 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/WireImage)
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September 29, 2020 10:59 a.m.

This story first appeared at ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

It was caught on tape. A Seattle police officer lunged into the backseat of a patrol car. The Black woman detained inside had been combative, but she already had her hands cuffed behind her back. Still the cop punched her in the face, breaking an orbital bone.

The Seattle Police Department moved to fire the officer for excessive force, but in November 2018, the cop’s union lawyer was able to convince an arbitrator to overturn the termination.

The implications of the incident went beyond the officer. The entire Seattle Police Department was under an agreement reached with the Obama administration Department of Justice because its officers had a pattern of abuse similar to the incident in the patrol car. That agreement, known as a consent decree, forced the department under tight federal oversight until it reformed itself. The Seattle police had already made a string of changes, including ending unconstitutional stop-and-frisk and improving training.

But the inability to easily fire the officer from the patrol car incident called the city’s progress into question. If the department couldn’t even get rid of officers it thought should be fired, then its disciplinary system potentially violated the settlement agreement, the judge assigned to oversee the consent decree said. The court-appointed independent monitor for the consent decree agreed.

But instead, the Justice Department of President Donald Trump took an unusual stance in court: It argued that the city’s disciplinary system was fine the way it was.

District Judge James Robart was shocked. In a filing, he accused the federal government of reversing its position on “the old accountability system’s inadequacy” and doing so “for the sake of political expediency.”

In Seattle and jurisdictions across the country, the Trump administration’s Department of Justice has pulled back on policing the police. It has not entered into a single new consent decree with any law enforcement agency suspected of systemic abuses of constitutional rights. It has only announced the completion of one investigation into such abuses.

But the pullback goes deeper. The Justice Department has also been undermining the existing agreements between the federal government and abusive police forces across the country, according to interviews with court-appointed monitors and former Justice Department officials.

The Obama Department of Justice entered into 15 consent decrees with law enforcement agencies, up from three under the Bush Justice Department. The settlement agreements, which come after a lawsuit by the federal government alleging unconstitutional policing, compel police agencies to fix themselves while under the close watch of Justice Department attorneys and an outside independent court monitor.

The Department of Justice was still overseeing all of these agreements when Trump entered the Oval Office in 2017. Supporters of the increased oversight worried that the Trump Justice Department would try to pull out of them entirely. It did so in Chicago just before an agreement was to be finalized and tried to in Baltimore. But instead of pulling out completely of those already well underway, it has eased up on enforcing them, managing to avoid negative attention and the ire of uncooperative judges, according to court-appointed monitors and former Justice Department lawyers.

The Justice Department has taken a similar approach in places like Cleveland, Los Angeles County and Newark, New Jersey, as it did in Seattle, with attorneys for the federal government failing to push for reforms, refusing to publicly back up frustrated monitors and not pressing local police forces to meet the requirements they agreed to.

The Justice Department declined to comment for this story.

As excessive force and killings by police have led to one of the biggest social justice movements the country has ever seen, the Trump administration has embraced police departments and attacked protesters as lawless and violent. Trump has taken on the “law and order” mantle as a centerpiece of his campaign. And top Trump officials, including then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have questioned whether the federal government should play an active role in reforming bad law enforcement agencies.

“If the city knows you’re not going to litigate because the head of the Justice Department is saying they don’t believe in consent decrees, then they know you’re not going to get the authority and they call your bluff,” said Sharon Brett, a former DOJ attorney who worked on investigations and consent decree enforcement during the Obama and Trump administrations.

People involved in these cases said career attorneys at the Justice Department’s civil rights division are acting cautiously, seeking not to draw the attention and ire of the politically appointed bosses in Washington. The chill has led to an exodus of attorneys from the unit that handles consent decree enforcement since the start of the Trump administration. (The DOJ would not share personnel numbers with ProPublica.)

Court-appointed monitors tasked with examining the progress being made by local police forces have noticed the shift.

“You would never know they’re party to the consent decree,” one monitor said, asking for anonymity to avoid angering the Justice Department. “I’ve never seen DOJ lawyers be so passive.”

Consent decrees are a relatively recent tool for reforming troubled police departments.

They were made possible by the Clinton administration’s 1994 crime bill, the same piece of legislation that has become radioactive among criminal reform advocates for contributing to over-incarceration. A provision of the law empowered the Justice Department to sue cities and counties for unconstitutional practices by their cops and prosecutors.

The process begins with civil rights attorneys from the Justice Department opening what’s known as a “pattern or practice” investigation into a police department or other law enforcement agency. They examine whether the rights of residents are being violated — either through excessive force, racially biased stops, unjustified arrests or other misconduct. On occasion, the Justice Department will sue those local jurisdictions or, in the most serious cases, enter into consent decrees.

Those agreements require the local jurisdictions to work with the Justice Department for years to complete a list of reforms and to prove to a judge those reforms are working. The court-appointed monitors, typically a police practices expert or former law enforcement official, examine how well the police force is implementing the changes in a series of public reports. If the local agency refuses to take required steps, or is too slow, it can be sanctioned by the judge on the case. The sanctions can include fines or even jail time for an obstructive police chief or other city official.

The process can be invasive and burdensome for local jurisdictions, particularly cash-strapped ones. After the shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teen whose death launched nationwide protests, Ferguson, Missouri, entered into a consent decree with the Obama administration Justice Department in 2016. The community has struggled to hire experts in data analysis and other fields that the agreement demands.

But experts believe the process is one of the most effective for righting wayward police forces.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You get to fix things institutionally,” said Peter Harvey, the former New Jersey attorney general and the current court-appointed monitor for the consent decree in Newark. “Once if you fix it organically, that culture persists.”

One consent decree widely considered a success is the 2001 agreement reached with the Los Angeles Police Department. The complaints of racist and brutal policing went back decades, prompting riots, like after the 1991 Rodney King beating, and major scandals, including when officers in the Rampart anti-gang division were discovered to be planting evidence and carrying out unprovoked shootings.

The federal oversight in Los Angeles lasted what local officials complained was an interminable 12 years, but in the end, even longtime LAPD veterans praised its outcome. In 2013, Chief Charlie Beck credited the consent decree with making “this a department that I am proud to hand over to my children.” A Harvard study on the reforms found that the police reduced incidents of serious force and that public satisfaction with the force rose to 83%.

From the beginning, the Trump administration took a hostile stance on these types of reform efforts. Trump’s first attorney general, Sessions, set the tone when he said the investigations “undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness.” He pulled out of a consent decree effort in Chicago, leaving it to the state attorney general to pick up, and tried to pull out of an agreement in Baltimore, which a federal judge blocked. Just before he resigned in 2018, Sessions issued a memo requiring high-level approval for any new consent decrees and raising the standard that staff attorneys needed to meet before opening a new investigation.

In Los Angeles County, the Justice Department entered into a settlement agreement with the Sheriff’s Department in 2015 after finding that cops assigned to the desert towns on the county’s northern outskirts were discriminating against Black and Latino residents.

According to the complaint the Justice Department filed in court, rank-and-file deputies were stopping and searching Black residents at higher rates, even though they were found to have contraband half as often as white residents. Even people who posed no obvious danger — including domestic violence victims and minor traffic offenders — were routinely being detained in the back of patrol cars. The agency’s deputies were assisting affordable housing inspectors in searches that intimidated Black residents and forced them from their homes.

Members of the department didn’t do much to hide their bias. During a tour with federal investigators, a sheriff’s supervisor remarked that all newly arrived Black residents in the area were current or former gang members. A sheriff’s captain suggested that affordable housing residents were offering shelter to gang member relatives “from South Central” — a neighborhood on the other end of the county with a large percentage of Black residents..

But five years into the settlement agreement, the agency has not overhauled its data collection system to track its interactions with the public to see if people of color are still being disproportionately stopped or harassed, one of the key reforms the agency agreed to with the Justice Department.

“It is fundamental,” said Joseph Brann, the co-chair of the team in charge of monitoring the agreement.

Both chairs, Brann and Angela Wolf, said the Sheriff’s Department resisted an expensive fix. The settlement agreement only applied to part of the sheriff’s jurisdiction, but an overhaul would require the sheriff to change his data collection agencywide.

In 2018, they pressured sheriff’s officials to act. Their response was, “‘We’re gonna make some phone calls, we’re gonna see,’” Wolf told ProPublica.

The monitors took that as sheriff’s officials suggesting they would appeal to Justice Department supervisors to try to get around the requirement.

“It wasn’t quite a threat,” Wolf said. “But it was an ‘uh huh, we’ll see if you’re right about that.’”

The staff-level attorneys are committed to enforcing the deal, but “we get the sense that higher up, supervisors are sometimes working in opposition to the mission,” Wolf said. “We do know there were times when sheriff’s officials made a phone call to higher-ups at DOJ,” she said, adding, “We do know that level of influence was being offered.”

And the department has still not revamped its system. The Sheriff’s Department did not respond to questions from ProPublica.

The monitors’ concerns go beyond the data issue. For a year and a half during the settlement agreement, sheriff’s officials ignored requests to make agreed-upon changes to their use-of-force policy. Only recently did the office begin to engage again with the monitor. But to this day there is still not an approved new policy.

Cleveland entered into a consent decree in 2015 after the Justice Department found its officers were using excessive force on residents, shooting at people who didn’t pose an immediate threat and using guns carelessly, including hitting people on the head with them. Cleveland cops were also using Tasers and pepper spray on people who were already handcuffed, at times not based on any threat they posed in the moment, but to punish them for earlier remarks. Officers who investigated their colleagues’ shootings admitted their goal was to cast accused officers in “the most positive light possible.”

In the consent decree with the Justice Department, Cleveland agreed that a judge would have the final say on a body cam policy. The city, with support from the police union, proposed that officers would not need to wear body cams if they were moonlighting.

When police officers worked as security at a Cavaliers game, for example, getting paid by a private entity, they weren’t required to wear cameras, even though they would be armed, wearing their uniforms and functionally acting as police officers. The police union was determined not to bend on this. When the city tried a voluntary pilot program to encourage moonlighting officers to wear cameras, the union distributed a letter instructing its members that it “is the OFFICIAL UNION POLICY to refrain from ‘VOLUNTEERING’ for anything with regard to work.”

The monitor objected to the moonlighting carve out.

“A system where one set of rules applies to officers working a city shift while another set of rules applies to officers working for a private employer fosters confusion, not confidence, among the community,” Matthew Barge, the monitor in Cleveland, argued in court.

The judge assigned to the case also signaled he agreed: “When you’re a police officer and you’re policing, whether it’s a bar or restaurant or whatever, people see you as a police officer.” He expressed concern that officers were “not encouraged but discouraged to volunteer.”

But at a June 2017 hearing, the Justice Department did not strongly support the monitor. The attorney told the judge that DOJ was “hopeful” that “the officers will see that using cameras on secondary employment is going to be beneficial for them and not burdensome.”

The Justice Department, she added, “looks forward to hearing about the progress of the pilot program as the rest of the months go on.” At that point, however, the pilot program had zero volunteers and was functionally dead.

Today, moonlighting Cleveland cops go about their duties without body cams.

Justice Department lawyers in Newark have taken a similar approach.

The city entered into a consent decree with the federal government in 2016. The Justice Department had alleged that a whopping 75% of the pedestrian stops Newark police made did not have a legitimate basis. Even though just about half the city’s residents are Black, they made up about 80% of stops and arrests.

Last year, as the consent decree was ongoing, a Newark cop shot repeatedly at a moving car, even as his partner urged him to “Relax! Relax bro!” He killed the driver, a Black man, and seriously injured the passenger. The officer had fired three separate times during a short pursuit, while the suspect’s car was in motion, a discouraged practice because of the danger it puts innocent bystanders in. The shooting was considered particularly reckless because the suspect’s windows were heavily tinted.

The monitor on the case repeatedly asked for video footage of the shooting in order to assess whether the department’s use-of-force policy needed revisions. He was repeatedly denied.

“The City and (Newark Police Department’s) response in refusing to produce the requested information violated the letter and spirit of Consent Decree,” the monitor wrote in one report. He only received the footage later, after it was aired on the local news.

The monitor could have used help from the Justice Department. But federal attorneys never spoke up.

“Not a word out of DOJ,” said someone involved in the case. “No email, no phone call, nothing.”

 

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