Trump Justice Department May Halt Police Reform Efforts Nationwide
The new administration’s hostility to police accountability on the campaign trail could translate into a passive if not openly anti-reform stance says advocates
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
The repercussions for the election of Donald Trump are still being sorted out but here in Baltimore there’s concern about anticipated changes in the Department of Justice. That’s because the Department of Justice issued a scathing report on the Baltimore City police department. An analysis that outlined unconstitutional and racist tactics which give reformers hope change would finally occur. But that hope has turned to fear. Both local leaders and advocates told there Real News they’re concerned that Trump’s election could effect not just the future investigations of police departments but the form and function of a not yet negotiated consent decree with the city that’s supposed to ensure tangible change takes place.
I’m here with Stephen Janis, reporter for the Real News Network.
Stephen can you tell me how important the Department of Justice is in relation to police reform?
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Well as you can see in a city like Baltimore, there’s practically no reform and there was no one really critiquing the department to the extent that the Justice Department did. This has been crucial in cities across the country like Cleveland, like Los Angeles in terms of stimulating real reform because it’s basically the local government is incapable of doing the kind of analysis they did. So really the Justice Department is crucial as we’ll see in our interview with David Rocah from the ACLU. He talks about how under different administrations there’s been a different level of police department investigations. But just Baltimore as an example, until the Justice Department document came out that was really as you pointed out, scathing, not much was done.
JANIS: Stephen, we talked to several stake holders about their concerns. Were there any themes that emerged. Well we talked to David Rocah from the ACLU. We talked to Brandon Scott, the Vice-Chair for the City Council’s Public Safety Committee and we talked to state delegate Joe Carter who of course has been one of the few police reform activists in the state who really has been touting police reform really fore years before any of this happened and things occurred. The one emerging theme was what is our backstop now? I mean because really the dialogue about reform in Maryland only really got serious after of course the uprising. But even more serious once the Department of Justice came in and issued this report. You know it was only the Department of Justice who would really sort of identify the true structural problems. If you read the report, it’s endemic. They go through it 160 pages. But now all of the people who we talked to said that might not exist anymore.
GRAHAM: Finally after a year long investigation into the firing of chief Sewell, Pocomoke city’s first African American police chief, the Department of Justice has actually gotten involved. Do you think Trump’s election could effect that at all?
JANIS: That again, is the same problem. Right now the Department of Justice is asking to intervene in Pocomoke. Remember in Pocomoke they fired their first black police chief Kelvin Sewell. Sewell claimed it was because he refused to fire two black officers who had filed a discrimination complaint. He filed a discrimination lawsuit and has since been indicted. So really it’s crucial that the Justice Department step in and say you know what, these allegations are real.
GRAHAM: Didn’t it sort of actually validate their allegations of racism that were also sustained by the EEOC.
JANIS: Yes as a matter of fact, the Justice Department has asked for changes to the structure of governance there to make up for the fact that they believe that discrimination has occurred there. So if a Justice Department is headed by someone who really thinks – by a president who has made the kind of racial statements, racialized statements, appointed someone from Breitbart which is like Alt-right kind of organization. One can really imagine that you’d have a situation where the Justice Department would not be that interested in intervening in the case or maybe sort of drag their feet or sort of play dead in this kind of situation or even make things more difficult.
The Justice Department’s going to be taken over by the Trump administration and there have been a lot of progress made by having investigations of police departments. What concerns do you have about, you and the ongoing Baltimore investigation with the new administration?
JILL P. CARTER: Well I think it’s a blow. Because I think we were on a path to making some progress and now this could completely deter it. I talked to some people who think oh it’s a waste of time to even pursue it now. I don’t take that position at all. I think that the Justice Department made some scathing findings that still need to be addressed to matter what administration is in place. I also think it’s important because they began the process of compiling necessary data. So even if the Justice Department decides not to file a lawsuit, that would not preclude other people from doing it and there have been successful lawsuits that many people know, including the Hopson lawsuit when there was in fact a republican in the White House. So, I don’t throw my hands up in the air and say no because right is right and we have to still push the word that.
JANIS: Do you have any plans for any sort of reform legislation in the upcoming session that you want to discuss now? Or if you don’t want to but just anything?
CARTER: I don’t have any plans for any kind of reform legislation. I mean a lot of other legislatures are now finally giving service to the idea of bail reform and that’s an issue that me and some others have been pushing for a long time and now maybe there’s some traction for it now that the attorney general and judge Morrison have weighed in saying that this is an issue and it needs to be addressed that money bail could feasibly be unconstitutional for [inaud.] poor defendants. I think that that will get some traction or I hope it will so I will just be willing to support nay legislation like that. But they need to go further. Like they’re still unnecessarily arresting people whether they’re held on bail or not, for various small and minor offenses or offenses that really – or cases that really don’t warrant it. There are still people being arrested for cases where there’s lack of probable cause.
JANIS: So you’re still seeing almost a zero tolerance style?
CARTER: I wouldn’t go that far, no. I think that what I see, there’s from what I hear also form talking to other attorneys that are always working inside central booking, they say that most of the arrests are based on a warrant so police are going out and looking for people for old warrants and then maybe finding some additional charges to throw in. But very few fresh new arrests observing new crime taking place and making fresh arrests.
DAVID ROCAH: Trump campaign on a platform of overt hostility towards the broad movement for reform of policing that has been happening in this country for several years now and has made clear his view that not only is there no problem with [hosue] policing is done. That the problem is the very attempts to reform policing. So, it would be extremely surprising to put it mildly for his administration to suddenly reverse course and to be a force for reform. I think it’s clear that there were many people who were skeptical of the DOJ’s ability to reform police and policing. I think there’s grounds to be skeptical or at least recognize the limits of what one can expect from the DOJ.
The DOJ’s investigation of Baltimore. The DOJ’s investigation in Ferguson. The investigation of Sherriff Arpaio to just pick some prominent examples, have been important in their own right. And have clearly have not been hindrances to the movement for police reform and in important ways have reinforced, bolstered, validated all of the movement in all of those cities. It would be nice to perhaps live in a world where that kind of validation wasn’t necessary. It’s hard to say that the validation hurts.
Well one primary way in which the federal government influences local police behavior is through funding. So they can attach whatever conditions they want to funding. Since local governments always love getting money from the feds, they have a significant ability to at least influence policy in that way. So many of the bad things that came from the feds were funding related. During the Bush Administration I think there were 3 consent decrees involving police in the 8 years. Then there were more than 3 times that in the Obama administration.
JANIS: So councilman you know that there’s going to be a complete change over the Justice Department. How do you think it’s going to effect the consent decree between the city and the police department?
BRANDON SCOTT: Well the consent decree was made before the president takes office. My hope is that folks will be able to transition that information over to make sure that we’re still going down the path that we need to and the path that we already – we don’t need any drastic change.
JANIS: Trump has said he wants to be a law and order president, Stop and frisk. Will we fight that on a local level?
SCOTT: Well yea. I mean he can say what he wants but at the local level we will have to fight that. We know that stop and frisk doesn’t work in Baltimore. We’ve been sued for it. So this is not New York. So no matter what, Mr. President-elect Trump or Mr. Giuliani if he puts him into some cabinet position and says we know that many cities are going to fight that because it simply doesn’t work and it violates people’s rights.
JANIS: Ultimately why can’t – why do you think it is that the federal is tasked or is left with the job of reform political elites? Why is it so hard to do it just on a local level?
SCOTT: Well for us it’s hard on a local level because there actually are police departments and state agencies and has to be changed by the state. But also I do think that with the way things have been going in this country and as I mentioned in that letter, I think that the issue around policng and all of this stuff and the citizens at the hands of police should be at this point, a homeland security issue so that the federal government can invest real money into police reform. The money that they gave out for body cameras was create but when you look at the cost of these body camera programs, that’s not even going to fund one city in it’s entirety. So they have to get serious about it if they seriously want to see the changes that they said they want to see.
GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
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