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Justice Department Ends Era of Pushing Police Reform

The Trump administration's latest reversal of Obama policing strategies instead puts an emphasis on tough-on-crime policies. But the shift will undermine efforts to rebuild relations between communities and police, say many law enforcement officials and experts.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions being applauded by Fraternal Order of Police National President Chuck Canterbury
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, left, is applauded by Fraternal Order of Police National President Chuck Canterbury as Sessions addresses the group's convention in August.
(AP/Mark Humphrey)
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced that it will overhaul a six-year-old Obama-era program that had been put in place in the wake of police shootings and other controversial officer incidents.

In a statement released Sept. 15, the DOJ said it would significantly scale back its Collaborative Reform Initiative, effectively putting an end to federal efforts to reform local police departments and improve police-community relations. Instead, the Justice Department will focus on providing more direct support to officers fighting gangs, drugs and violent crime as well as those dealing with protests.

The move is in line with a tougher law-and-order approach that President Donald Trump advocated during his campaign and in his first several months in office. Despite Trump's claim that violent crime is at near record highs, it remains near historic lows.

Nevertheless, critics say the DOJ's change will undermine local law enforcement efforts to make necessary reforms to reduce officer-involved shootings and to mend the sometimes strained relationships with the communities they serve.

“This is a complete abandonment of collaborative reform,” says Chiraag Bains, a visiting senior fellow with the Criminal Justice Policy Program and a former federal prosecutor and senior official in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama. “It isn’t even fair to call whatever replaces the program 'collaborative reform.'”

Launched in 2011, the Collaborative Reform Initiative has been a voluntary program in which local departments could seek assistance from federal officials to help build community relations. At the request of a police chief, federal officials used collaborative reform to conduct investigations of a troubled law enforcement agency and make suggestions for change.

But the DOJ says those investigations often caused an “adversarial” relationship between the federal government and municipal law enforcement agencies. Instead, the new collaborative reform program will focus on “targeting and preventing crime,” “proactive policing” and “training for de-escalation, crisis intervention and citizen engagement to address violent crime.” The program will offer departments access to experts in gang suppression, disruption of drug markets and policing mass demonstrations.

The DOJ says the mission of the new program will be promoting “officer safety, officer morale and public respect for their work.”

The Justice Department's pivot comes as the debate over criminal justice reform has found uncommon allies on both the left and right side of the political spectrum. Even Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the U.S. House and one of the architects of the 1994 crime bill, which reform advocates credit with spurring explosive growth in the prison population, now says that criminal justice reform is necessary.

But the push for reform has proven divisive among police themselves. Police chiefs are generally in favor of reform, while many rank-and-file officers staunchly oppose them.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a group of the country's most prominent law enforcement leaders, including former New York Police Chief William Bratton, met with and eventually backed Hillary Clinton, who supported continuing the reform efforts put in place by President Obama. But the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the nation’s largest organization representing rank-and-file officers, endorsed Trump. FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco told NPR after Trump’s election that the probes by the Obama-era DOJ amounted to a "virtual jihad" against local policing and added that "police officers are not seen with the level of respect and esteem that they might have been in the past.”

The recent announcement by the DOJ is merely the latest effort by Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to roll back policing policies put in place under Obama. 

In July, Sessions reversed the previous administration's limits on civil asset forfeiture, a widely criticized practice in which law enforcement officers seize cash and property from citizens who have not been charged with crimes. In August, Trump signed an executive order to reinstate a program that provides police with surplus military equipment. In March, Sessions called for a thorough review of the 23-year-old Community Oriented Policing Services, a program that helps agencies develop better relationships between the officers and the residents they serve. That program includes the Collateral Reform Initiative.

Justice officials have also tried this year, though less successfully, to diminish reform efforts in specific cities. 

The department in April tried unsuccessfully to delay a court-ordered consent decree in Baltimore. (A consent decree results from a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department against a municipal police agency. The court appoints a police monitor who’s responsible for making sure the policing agency follows the reform recommendations made by the Justice Department.) In Chicago, federal officials sought to convince city leaders to pare down reforms that had been called for in the wake of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald. That backfired, though, because in response, the Illinois state attorney general sued the city to force it to implement far more aggressive reforms.

Earlier this month, the DOJ halted an ongoing review of the police department in Milwaukee. Police Chief Edward Flynn had sought the department's help rebuilding community relations after federal prosecutors declined to file charges against the officer who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in 2014. A draft report from the DOJ review had called on Milwaukee police to establish an independent auditor, hire a more diverse force and implement stricter behavior policies for officers.

Those and other reforms were stopped by the Justice Department's recent announcement. Instead, Milwaukee police will receive training on how to reduce crime.


Sweeping Impacts

Sessions and others have said the collaborative reform investigations are a federal overreach, plain and simple (despite the fact that they only come at the request of local leaders). In a memo to justice officials in April, Sessions wrote that "local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies."

Reform advocates, however, say the new changes are about more than a shift toward local control.

“What’s being lost is the federal government using its resources to establish best practices,” says  Marc Schindler, executive director at the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit that advocates for police reforms. “What we see in Milwaukee is not about local control. The Milwaukee police chief wants a partnership with the feds. And what he is getting -- under the guise of local control -- is the federal government saying, 'You can have this training or you can have nothing.'”

Without the federal government as an active partner, law enforcement officials say, their own local efforts to implement reforms will suffer. 

“It is critical in my mind that the Justice Department be there to help institute change,” says Charles Ramsey, the former chief of police in Philadelphia and, prior to that, in Washington, D.C.

In 2013, Ramsey asked for collaborative reform after a spike in officer-involved shootings.

“I wanted to make sure we were doing everything in our power," he says, "to make sure we had the proper training in place."

The Justice Department spent nearly two years in Philadelphia conducting scores of interviews with cops and community members. Federal investigators attended nearly two dozen use-of-force review board hearings. The DOJ ultimately gave the Philadelphia Police Department 91 recommendations on how it could improve, and justice officials remained in the city for 18 months to help the department implement the changes.

Having that leadership from the federal government is crucial in rebuilding the public's faith in police, Ramsey says.

“Sometimes the lack of trust [between residents and police] is to the point that anything short of DOJ involvement and the community is not going to accept it,” he says.

By moving away from reform efforts and doubling down on fighting gangs and violent crime, say Ramsey and others, the DOJ is hearkening back to tough-on-crime strategies that first took root 40 years ago but today are seen by many as ineffective in addressing entrenched issues within a community.

“It shows how out of touch the Sessions DOJ is with what’s happening in policing,” Schindler says. “This is Sessions pulling from the same playbook of the law-and-order approach to fighting crime that dates back to the 1970s. He believes in his heart that where crime is a problem, we can arrest our way out of it.”

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