U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ended a Trump-era restriction on investigations into police departments as several communities grapple with the fallout from recent killings. The recently confirmed Garland issued a memo to all U.S. attorneys and other relevant staff outlining policies to address police.
“This memorandum makes clear that the Department will use all appropriate legal authorities to safeguard civil rights and protect the environment, consistent with longstanding Departmental practice and informed by the expertise of the Department’s career workforce,” Garland said to the Associated Press.
Garland effectively restored the Justice Department’s investigation power to levels set during the Obama administration. A month into the role, Garland has made it clear protecting civil liberties and civil rights is a priority.
Garland’s action received general praise from civil rights organizations.
Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued a statement calling Garland’s action necessary for accountability.
“Accountability and oversight are key ways to ensure that equal rights under the law are safeguarded, and Attorney General Merrick Garland understands this,” said Henderson. He explained the importance of consent decrees in “fix[ing] patterns and practices of unconstitutional and discriminatory conduct” in government agencies. “They are needed now more than ever, as the nation grapples with ongoing police misconduct and killings,” Henderson continued.
So what does this mean?
Federal prosecutions of individual officers are rare. But the renewed focus on investigating the practices and patterns of behavior within police departments could yield useful information about activities often shrouded in secrecy.
It also illustrates the need for a visionary leader in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. President Joe Biden tapped Kristen Clarke to lead the division. Earlier this week, Clarke appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions as a part of the confirmation process.
During Clarke’s hearing, Republican senators repeatedly asked pointed questions about former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. While Wilson was cleared of any wrongdoing in the killing of Michael Brown, the Justice Department issued a scathing report about the entire Ferguson police department.
The renewed focus on police accountability and growing frustration with the limitations of reforms raise questions about what consent decrees initiated by a Garland DOJ might do differently. Consent decrees are considered a part of a longer-range strategic change, not an overnight fix.
In February, federal monitors found a lag in progress in departments under consent decrees in New Orleans and the Antelope Valley area of Los Angeles County. Currently, under a consent decree, Chicago has been in the news this week for the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.
Consent decrees of police departments are questionable in their ability to change behaviors and practices. But the information revealed in official investigations can inform communities of the data and findings necessary to take action to address public safety.