Under President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice has been active in investigating and engaging police departments across the nation about their civil rights shortcomings. Just in recent weeks, the department brought suit against Ferguson, Missouri, for its police abuses and announced an investigation of the San Francisco police. That’s on top of investigations and interventions, in recent years, of departments in Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle and many more.
Whether that trend continues — and whether the Black Lives Matter movement will have an ally in the White House next year — are open questions, observers say.
“If a Republican is elected president this year, that effort is likely to go away,” says Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor in the School of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Omaha, adding: “We’ve got a history of this now. It’s 20 years. We had some activity under Clinton, the Bush administration walked away, then the Obama administration came back. It’s not hard to predict what will happen.”
The history of DOJ interventions is just a couple of decades old. In 1994, Congress passed — in the wake of the Rodney King verdict and subsequent L.A. riots — the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The law is remembered these days mostly for exploding the country’s prison population, but it also empowered the attorney general “to review the practices of law enforcement agencies that may be violating people’s federal rights.”
The effectiveness of the department’s interventions since then has been questioned. The Washington Post and Frontline last year found that the efforts have had mixed results. On one hand, the interventions “have led to modernized policies, new equipment and better training” in affected departments,” the news organizations found.
However: “Measured by incidents of use of force, one of Justice’s primary metrics, the outcomes are mixed. In five of the 10 police departments for which sufficient data was provided, use of force by officers increased during and after the agreements. In five others, it stayed the same or declined.”
At the grassroots level, though, the federal efforts are often welcomed. In Philadelphia, Bishop Dwayne Royster is the executive director of POWER, a coalition of faith groups focused on social justice issues. The organization has organized Black Lives Matter protests both in the wake of local police shootings and in reaction to developments elsewhere across the country.
Royster thinks the power of protesters and federal action have made a powerful one-two punch. The Philadelphia Police Department is currently undergoing a reform effort in response to a DOJ report that found an “undercurrent of significant strife” between the department and the community.
“I think the Department of Justice doing its work makes our work easier,” Royster says. “In other places they haven’t had that, so it’s been harder to get things initiated.”
Effectiveness aside, federal investigations of local police departments — and the broader Black Lives Matter movement — have drawn harsh criticism from conservatives, who depict the efforts as weakening police and emboldening criminals.
“This reluctance to act is affecting police departments across the country, as virtually every tool in an officer’s tool chest — from traffic stops to public-order maintenance — is vilified as racist,” Heather Mac Donald wrote last year for the National Review.
Indeed, the difference between liberals and conservatives on the issue is apparent in the numbers. In 2014, the department announced that in the past five fiscal years — under the Obama administration, in other words — it had “opened over 20 investigations into police departments, more than twice as many investigations than were opened in the previous five fiscal years.”
That same year, law professor Stephen Rushin analyzed the DOJ’s police interventions — and found they virtually disappeared during the George W. Bush administration, particularly during the second term.
“The DOJ did not enter into a single negotiated settlement during this time period,” he wrote. “And since the DOJ did not agree to any settlements during this time period, they also did not push for the monitoring of any police agency.”
Which means the presidential election is a turning point.
“Both Democratic presidential candidates appear to understand the importance of police reform and are sensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement,” says William Yeomans, a fellow in law and government at American University. “The Republican candidates have, for the most part, kept the movement at arm’s length and can be expected to do that in office.”
Rushin, in his analysis, suggested that DOJ’s efforts could be strengthened by allowing “private litigants” to pursue action against police departments accused of misconduct. That change “would permit the DOJ to continue the important job of structurally reforming problematic police departments, while empowering a new group of plaintiffs to fill the gaps,” he wrote.
That change, however, would require action from Congress — unlikely while both branches are under the control of Republican majorities. That leaves activists like Royster rooting for Democrats in the presidential election.
“I’m prayerful,” he says, “that the right person emerges in November.”
Joel Mathis is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia. He co-writes the nationally syndicated RedBlueAmerica column for Tribune Content Services.