The deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, figured prominently in last year's nationwide protests against police abuse. In April, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced investigations into the police departments of both cities.
The announcements signaled that the Justice Department under President Joe Biden was revving up its Civil Rights Division to investigate systemic police misconduct. That effort represents a sharp turnaround from the DOJ under President Donald Trump, which insisted that the problem with American policing was limited to a few bad apples.
The Obama administration launched 25 of these "pattern-or-practice" investigations, meant to determine whether a police department routinely violates federal law or the Constitution. The Civil Rights Division issued scathing reports on widespread misconduct, excessive force, and unconstitutional policing in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson, Missouri. The investigations often led to court-enforced settlements, known as "consent decrees," that mandated policy changes.
Jeff Sessions, Trump's first attorney general, complained that the DOJ reports unfairly smeared whole departments and that the consent decrees tied the hands of local officials, subjecting cities to onerous and expensive oversight by federal judges. The troubled Oakland, California, police department, for example, has been under a federal consent decree since 2003, and Oakland officials estimate the city has spent $28 million trying to comply with the court's requirements.
"These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness," Sessions said during his 2017 Senate confirmation hearing. "We need to be careful before we do that."
While prosecutions of individual police officers and prison guards continued at more or less their usual pace under Sessions, investigations into whole departments ground to a halt. The Trump Justice Department released the findings of exactly one pattern-or-practice investigation: a probe into a wildly corrupt narcotics unit in Springfield, Massachusetts.
One of Sessions' final moves in office was to sharply limit when the Justice Department could enter into consent decrees. Vanita Gupta, who ran the Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration, called that policy "a slap in the face to the dedicated career staff of the department who work tirelessly to enforce our nation's civil rights laws." The Biden administration rolled back Sessions' directive, and Gupta is now back at the Justice Department as an associate attorney general.
Sessions was correct that consent decrees should be used judiciously. Justice Department investigations and settlements are a heavy-handed imposition of federal authority. But they can also provide recourse for citizens who have been betrayed by rotten police departments and indifferent local governments.