More recently, federal police-reform efforts have fallen victim to partisan whims. In the latter years of the Obama administration, the Justice Department responded to a wave of public interest in police misconduct by announcing investigations into multiple cities after high-profile killings there. But those efforts were soon undermined by the Trump administration, which generally opposed police reforms. Under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department scaled back or abandoned most of its police oversight efforts. His last act was to promulgate a memo that sharply limited how DOJ could use consent decrees in the future.
After George Floyd’s death ignited protests across the country last summer, former Attorney General Bill Barr considered opening a pattern-and-practice investigation in Minneapolis but took no action on it. Barr had already authorized a narrower inquiry into whether Chauvin and other Minneapolis officers had violated federal civil-rights laws, which could open the door to federal charges against the officers themselves. Prosecutions on those grounds are relatively rare, however, and they do not give the department any influence to address more systemic issues within a particular police department. That inquiry is still ongoing in Floyd’s case.
Garland rescinded the Sessions memo last week, signaling that the Biden administration will take a more intense approach to scrutinizing wayward police departments. Biden himself has also highlighted the department’s historical responsibility to enforce federal civil-rights laws. When announcing Garland’s nomination in January, Biden took the unusual step of also revealing his choices for the next two highest positions at DOJ at the same time, as well as his nomination of Kristen Clarke to lead the Civil Rights Division itself. Garland noted during his confirmation hearing that the Justice Department itself had been created during Reconstruction to enforce civil-rights laws and protect Black Americans’ rights in the South.
It remains to be seen whether the Biden Justice Department can avoid the pitfalls that befell it under the Obama administration on this issue, or fully restore its diminished reputation from the Trump era. And while reformers can take heart from the immediacy of Garland’s announcement, it’s a long and difficult road between DOJ announcing a probe and that probe bearing fruits. Nothing federal officials can do would serve as a substitute for the kinds of locally-driven reform that might demilitarize police departments or get cops out of the business of performing mental health interdiction or other kinds of social services. But Garland’s timing sends a strong signal to those who might more effectively catalyze change that DOJ is back in the game.