Editor’s Note: Sherrilyn Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc. (LDF). The views expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion at CNN.
Of all the ways the Trump administration has tried to roll back Obama-era initiatives, abandoning efforts to address police brutality, bias and misconduct may be one of the most devastating.
After protests broke out across the country following the police killings of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri in 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) under former President Barack Obama began to ramp up its efforts to combat unconstitutional policing.
Obama’s DOJ increased the number of investigations and lawsuits charging local police departments with systemic misconduct using its authority under the Law Enforcement Misconduct statute.The Obama administration also created a bipartisan Task Force on 21st Century Policing that issued a powerful report identifying clear and achievable goals for policing reform, which included building trust with communities, increasing accountability measures for misconduct and re-imagining the recruitment and training of officers to confront issues of racial bias and discrimination.
When President Donald Trump entered the White House, however, his first appointed attorney general, Jeff Sessions, signaled that this would all change under his leadership. Sessions made clear his disapproval of consent decrees — legal agreements between the Justice Department and local governments that can be used to bind police departments to adopt reforms.
Sessions also ended the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office’s comprehensive collaborative assessments – voluntary, reform-oriented evaluations of police practices performed at the request of police departments. And, while Sessions’ DOJ would continue to prosecute individual officers for violations of federal civil rights laws, it would limit its investigation of police departments for engaging in “patterns and practices” of unconstitutional policing and use of consent decrees. President Trump also underscored this new approach to unconstitutional policing by pardoning former sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt for violating a court order to stop targeting suspected immigrants in a racial profiling case
In fact, in a recent speech to law enforcement, Trump’s current attorney general, William Barr, said Americans “have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves,” before going on to add, “if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
The nation’s chief law enforcement officer sent a clear message to African American communities and essentially told them to stop demanding that officers police their communities within the bounds of the US Constitution, or give up the expectation that officers will protect them from crime. This stunning statement further illustrates this administration’s continued and intentional regression when it comes to providing oversight of the nation’s police departments – and demonstrates why it is particularly pressing that the public step up efforts to ensure that law enforcement is transparent and accountable.
Despite these changes at the federal level, local community activism against police brutality and misconduct remains robust and undiminished. Residents from Tulsa to North Charleston are demanding accountability and change, and are slowly moving the needle on reform. In cities including Baltimore and Chicago, consent decrees requiring police departments to adopt reforms are underway, and residents are working hard to ensure their implementation. The nonprofit Communities United for Police Reform, along with other civil rights organizations, launched an initiative last year to call for the repeal of New York state’s law 50-a, which bars the public from accessing police officers’ disciplinary and complaint records. Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign, has created a multi-factor scorecard that rates levels of police violence, accountability, and approaches to policing in the 100 largest police departments in California. And activists have continued marching and organizing against police violence in communities around the country.
But it would be folly to abandon the demand that the Department of Justice do its part to address police brutality and other policing conduct that does not conform with the constitutional protections of the 4th and 14th Amendments. The DOJ still exercises enormous influence over law enforcement practices in this country. Much of that influence is driven by money, since the DOJ provides hundreds of millions of grant dollars every year to local police departments through a number of programs. In the fiscal year 2019, the department’s COPS Office alone awarded approximately $106 million to support community policing initiatives.
DOJ grant money influences the priorities and practices of law enforcement agencies and officers across the country. And many departments receiving these funds have a track record of misconduct and systemic discrimination. Originally designed to help address local resistance to desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. Crucially, Title VI requires each federal agency that provides federal financial assistance to state, local or private institutions to ensure that funding recipients do not engage in discriminatory practices. And, if funding recipients fail to adhere to the law, they should, under the law, risk losing these funds.
Until now, there has been no mechanism that allows communities to track this grant money and correlate it with departments with a record of unconstitutional policing. This week, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF)’s Thurgood Marshall Institute released the National Police Funding Database that does just that. It provides access to data on federal grants awarded to over 150 law enforcement agencies across the nation, along with relevant demographic data, and, where available, police misconduct complaints, consent decrees and settlements. Users of the database can research federal grants received by their local police departments and identify the payouts that some of the largest police departments make each year to settle misconduct claims.
This database comes online just as President Trump prepares to promote his newly created Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. According to the executive order establishing this commission, it is intended to “prevent, reduce, and control crime, increase respect for the law, and assist victims,” including through establishing best practices for policing.
The database also arrives as the DOJ and other federal agencies announced the launch of “Operation Relentless Pursuit,” a new policing initiative which will provide up to $71 million in federal grants to bolster policing in seven major cities, several of which are already grappling with issues of discrimination and misconduct on their forces. Money matters. It incentivizes law enforcement conduct, and can also incentivize reform.
Any federal commission focused on public safety must address the failure to enforce Title VI with respect to funding law enforcement. Relatedly, it must also actively monitor any new federally funded policing initiatives, like “Operation Relentless Pursuit,” to ensure that recipients have not violated civil rights. We have little hope that any Trump-convened or Barr-supervised law enforcement commission would do so. But, we do have faith in the power of communities to demand accountability from their government when they are equipped with the data they need