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Are Cops 'Off the Hook'? How Police Reform Has Changed Under Trump

The Trump administration has shifted away from overseeing police in favor of tackling violent crime.

Pro-law enforcement demonstrators and members of Black Lives Matter.
Pro-law enforcement demonstrators and members of Black Lives Matter confront each other in Sacramento, Calif.
(AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
Updated 8:24 a.m. ET

In his final hours as U.S. Attorney General last month, Jeff Sessions issued a memo limiting the Justice Department’s power to pursue and enforce federal consent decrees with local police departments.

These court-enforced arrangements were a major tool for the Obama administration to curb patterns of police abuse and misconduct during a time of heightened national attention on the issue. The Obama administration launched "pattern or practice" investigations into 25 police departments and entered into 14 consent decrees. By comparison, the Trump administration has initiated zero.

Sessions’ eleventh-hour decision did not come as a surprise.

“The Department of Justice under this administration will never negotiate or sign a consent decree that could reduce the lawful powers of the police department,” said a DOJ spokesman last year

Sessions' order could restrict existing and future police reform agreements. For example, it states that consent decrees should not last longer than three years, and it doesn't explicitly require departments to fully comply with the terms of the agreement in that time.

“This will allow the political leadership of DOJ to let abusive departments off the hook even when they haven’t instituted the reforms necessary to turn themselves around,” says Chiraag Bains, director of legal strategies at Demos and a former federal prosecutor with the Civil Rights Division under Obama's DOJ.

The changes are just the latest in the Trump administration's shift away from overseeing police and toward other priorities like further reducing violent crime, which has already been declining since the 1990s. (While Trump largely pushes for "tough on crime" policies, he said he intends to sign a bill the U.S. Senate passed on Tuesday that would reduce prison sentences for certain crimes.)


New Policing Priorities

During his 21-month tenure as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Sessions maintained that federal police consent decrees “can reduce morale of police officers” and prevent them from performing their jobs effectively. In April 2017, Sessions ordered a review of all existing Justice Department consent decrees. That same month, the DOJ unsuccessfully tried to delay the Obama administration’s final consent decree with Baltimore.

Sessions' DOJ also abandoned negotiations for a consent decree with Chicago, according to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. The inaction prompted Madigan to file a lawsuit against the city, leading to a rare agreement in July between a state AG and a city mayor to mandate sweeping police reforms overseen by a federal judge.

Among this shift in policing priorities, Sessions revamped a community policing program in September 2017 that was established by Obama in 2011. Under the Collaborative Reform Initiative (CRI), departments could request a DOJ review of their practices, and afterward, receive a public assessment with recommended changes. Departments could also receive federal funding and training to help implement the changes.

“That’s huge because a lot of the things that start as deficiencies we need to keep them from turning into patterns of unconstitutional conduct. But [Sessions] took that away,” says Christy Lopez, a Georgetown University law professor who led the team that investigated the Ferguson Police Department after Michael Brown’s 2014 shooting.

The Trump administration announced that the revamped CRI program would increase its focus on helping police departments tackle violent crime, fight gangs and deal with protests. The move has left about a dozen police departments that requested CRI assistance under Obama still waiting for completed reports.

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2017 for updates on the status of these reports. In response, the DOJ said the CRI program "will no longer be issuing progress reports relating to previous assessments."

Chester, Pa.'s police department requested CRI assistance in 2016. Police Chief James Nolan says they received some good training opportunities in late 2017 through mid-2018, focused on de-escalation, supervision, conflict resolution and statistical analysis, but they never received the written report they were promised.

Overall, Nolan says he would grade the process overall a “B.” He appreciated the “less accusatory” presence from Sessions’ Justice Department, but he says a written report and sustained communication would have improved their reforms.

“It would go from B to A if there was some follow-up or assistance in implementing changes. Lacking any sort of management study and then trying to address issues makes things sort of difficult,” Nolan says. 

In addition to revamping CRI, the Trump administration discontinued funding for an Obama-era program called the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Launched in 2014, the initiative sought to address racial tensions, implicit bias and other issues influencing relationships between communities and police.

The Gary, Ind., Police Department was one of six pilot sites for the program. Brian Evans, Gary's deputy police chief, says the program "was nothing but helpful. ... We received so much positive feedback from the community on our officers’ behavior.”

Under Trump, the Gary police department has had little communication with the DOJ, says Evans. Absent federal involvement, the police department still works with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which helped implement the National Initiative, to continue the practices it learned, particularly with addressing how police engage with local youth.


Policing Under Trump

Since taking office, Trump has vowed to make officer safety and violent crime a priority -- and has made good on those promises.

In addition to the CRI updates, a 2017 memo directed U.S. attorneys to implement "an enhanced violent crime reduction program" based on lessons learned from President George W. Bush's Project Safe Neighborhoods. Last month, the DOJ announced $56 million in funding for officer safety, including bulletproof vests, body cameras and safety research.

Still, the Trump administration has not abandoned all efforts to address use of force, according to information provided by the DOJ.

Under the newly restructured Collaborative Reform Initiative, for example, 65 police departments across nine states have received technical assistance since the updated program launched in March of this year. Fifty-five of those departments have received de-escalation training, according to DOJ records.

Sgt. Shawn Dodson, head of the training division for Joplin, Mo.'s police department, says officers underwent a two-day, "multi-faceted" training this month addressing some of the psychological and emotional roots of use of force.

In Iowa, the Cedar Rapids Police Department also received assistance this year under the new CRI program for a range of areas, including crowd management of large-scale events. Police Chief Wayne Jerman says that he "welcomes any federal assistance" and has not noticed significant changes in the DOJ's policing programs between the Obama and Trump administrations.

Amid the national conversation about police misconduct, Dodson says "oversight is great, but there seems to be a gap between what is legally acceptable for law enforcement and the [public] impression of what's acceptable."

Much of Sessions' vocal opposition to federal intervention focused on his belief that it's a state’s right to regulate local police. Experts challenge that idea.

“If a police department is providing unconstitutional policing, then only the Department of Justice -- which enforces the United States Constitution -- can fix that. I don’t think they can ever walk away from that,” says Ronal Serpas, a criminology professor at Loyola University New Orleans and former Nashville police chief.

With Sessions now out of office, there are no signs that the Trump administration will become more involved in overseeing and reforming police misconduct. In lieu of federal oversight, Serpas believes that local communities have an important role to play.

"Presidents come and go, Congresses come and go," Serpas says. "Change is going to come from different parts of the country -- maybe at different times -- through local government. It’s the way we’re set up."

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