Justice Department has a tool to make police forces better. It’s not using it.

Black Lives Matter

In November 2018, Sessions “narrowly tailored,” to the point of extinction, these court-approved agreements between the Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies, despite their focus on reducing police misconduct, particularly the steady flow of brutality against black people.

Sessions argued the decrees can take “decisions, and the accountability for them, away from the people’s elected representatives.”

Many of those representatives, however, were doing too little to stem police abuse. As a result, “in the wake of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King in 1991, Congress gave the DOJ statutory authority to investigate state and local law enforcement agencies for patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing, such as racial profiling and excessive use of force,” according to a Center for American Progress report.

Three decades later, video of another act of police cruelty, last week’s Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, 46, by Minneapolis police, shocked the nation into one of the most widespread series of protests to roil the nation in years. The Minneapolis Police Department was not under a consent decree, according to a Justice Department document, and that’s unlikely to change with Trump in the White House.

“I think the Trump administration and his Justice Department have completely gutted the police reform effort,” said Vanita Gupta, an acting assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Obama administration and currently president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Under former president Barack Obama, Justice’s Civil Rights Division opened 25 investigations into law enforcement agencies and enforced 19 agreements, including 14 consent decrees and similar directives.

Efforts by Democratic and Republican administrations since 1994 when Congress provided for federal investigations into unconstitutional police “pattern and practice” misconduct cases “all stopped with President Trump,” said Danyelle Solomon, vice president of the race and ethnicity policy at the Center for America Progress. “President Trump’s failure to engage in this important work is in line with his rhetoric.”

The Justice Department did not reply to repeated requests for comment on the consent decrees. The Leadership Conference can find no record of any consent decree initiated under Trump.

“The consent decrees are not perfect because there is no perfect mechanism for the kind of change that’s required,” said Gupta. “But they’re the best thing that exists.”

These court orders are designed to change not just policies, but also entrenched cultures that lead to police abuse. Noting the saying that “culture eats policy for lunch,” Gupta said the decrees seek to have police officers embrace values against racially discriminatory policing, against tolerating misconduct and in favor of community-based policing.

Baltimore is trying to do that.

Its police department entered into a consent decree in 2017, two years after the death of Freddie Gray, whose police custody death ignited the city.

Last year, Baltimore trained the whole department on the use of force. “We were in the middle of training on constitutional stops, searches and arrests when covid hit,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Danny Murphy. “We’re having to adjust our training schedule for that.”

The use of force training includes de-escalation tactics, critical thinking to assess situations, use of reasonable, proportional power and respecting the dignity of human life.

A critical component of the training concerns the duty to intervene. That is what the three officers with Derek Chauvin — the former Minneapolis officer charged with killing Floyd with a knee pressed against his neck for more than eight minutes — did not do.

“If one of those officers intervened in that situation, Mr. Floyd would be alive,” Murphy added. “You wouldn’t have the broken the trust you have in Minneapolis that’s spreading out across the country right now.”

While some have urged Trump to offer healing words to the nation, he instead continued his aggressive rhetoric Monday during a call with the nation’s governors, saying they are “weak” and “fools” if they “don’t dominate your streets” against protesters.

In the wake of the turmoil engulfing the nation, about 400 organizations led by the Leadership Conference urged Congress to approve a set of reforms “to swiftly rectify the legacy of white supremacy and anti-black racism that has led to police violence against Black people across our country.”

In a letter sent Monday to congressional leaders, the organizations listed eight proposals “to ensure that police officers live up to their oath to protect and serve.” The points include imposing a federal standard reserving force “for only when necessary as a last resort after exhausting reasonable options” and prohibiting “all maneuvers that restrict the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain.”

That would include Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck.

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