Seven years ago in Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley, as sheriff’s deputies increasingly targeted African Americans in Section 8 housing, the Rev. V. Jesse Smith began to fear that a concerted move was underway to push poor black people out of the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster.
Four years later and 60 miles south, an Orange County public defender named Scott Sanders, representing a man who killed eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon, discovered that government officials had secretly moved a longtime informant next to his client in the jail to elicit a confession from him. A deeper look revealed the county, through a surreptitious informant program, had for years been corrupting the judicial system in this way.
In a different time, the two cases might have been ignored, or dismissed as a cost of keeping the peace in a big-city suburb. Instead, this time, the two cases drew the attention of the Obama administration’s Department of Justice.
Both prompted intensive federal intervention. Both involved serious examination of law enforcement practices. And both are now viewed as exemplars of the value of federal intervention in local civil rights abuses, with important lessons to offer at a time when controversies over the use of force – such as the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore – have heightened the focus on law enforcement.
Sadly, in the era of President Donald Trump, those lessons are extremely unlikely to garner much attention, and that intense Justice Department role almost certainly will not continue. Trump’s record of backing away from criminal justice reform is already disturbingly clear.
What is truly lamentable about this development – for society and for those citizens most likely to encounter the worst of law enforcement conduct on the streets and in the courts – is that the approach pursued in the California cases demonstrates what was so potent and praiseworthy about Justice’s approach under Obama: It was a defense of mostly powerless people whose rights had been trampled by those in authority.
In the Orange County probe, launched in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, the department is investigating allegations that for years prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies violated inmates’ rights with a hidden jail informant program to win convictions and then tried to cover up their wrongdoing. That conduct so enraged the judge presiding over the trial in the Seal Beach mass shooting that he recused local prosecutors from being involved in the penalty phase of the trial and blocked imposition of the death penalty in the case.
In northern Los Angeles County, a 2015 court-enforceable settlement agreement between Justice and the Sheriff’s Department resulted in 150 mandates affecting deputies in Palmdale and Lancaster, two cities in the Antelope Valley where more than a half-million people live.
Critics contended there had been a drive to rid the area of African Americans by evicting them from subsidized housing units. The Justice Department’s investigation found patterns of excessive use of force and biased practices, including unlawful searches and seizures.
In the Los Angeles County case, the move to reform the Sheriff’s Department’s conduct “wouldn’t have happened without the Department of Justice,” said Smith, a local minister and activist who was part of an earlier lawsuit challenging deputies’ conduct. “Justice getting involved showed the federal government was concerned about African Americans, about people with low incomes. Justice was speaking truth to power.”
Both the Orange County investigation and the Los Angeles County sheriff’s settlement agreement with the Justice Department “underscore the extremely valuable nature of DOJ’s role in ensuring that the criminal justice system is more just, more fair and more humane,” said Myesha Braden, a former federal prosecutor who now works for the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Braden said Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, always emphasized that focus was the goal in the 1960s of his predecessor, Robert Kennedy.
During Trump’s first year in office, Justice so far has not entered into a single consent decree – a court-enforced reform agreement requiring specific changes – with a law enforcement agency. During Obama’s eight years, the department entered into 11 consent decrees with law enforcement agencies, and a 12th was finalized in Baltimore after Trump took office – following a failed effort by Trump’s Justice Department to delay the agreement.
Another key measure of the retreat from police reform at Justice is this: Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recently announced a major rollback affecting the Collaborative Reform Initiative, a program created in 2011 and run by Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services.
To critics, the changes imposed by Sessions effectively ended the program, which had enabled law enforcement agencies to seek Justice’s help voluntarily to reform their operations and improve community trust. To many police chiefs, this was a route far preferable to the DOJ’s civil rights pattern-or-practice investigations that examined alleged violations of citizens’ rights and often culminated in a federal lawsuit and a court-enforceable requirement for changes.
Predictably, the Justice Department under Trump defends its approach.
Devin O’Malley, a Justice Department spokesman, told me in an email: “The President tasked the Attorney General with reducing violent crime, and the Justice Department believes the changes to the Collaborative Reform Initiative will help accomplish this goal – without the use of expensive taxpayer-funded consultants – by returning control to local law enforcement agencies and by targeting the Department’s assistance to the actual needs of those agencies.”
O’Malley declined to comment on the status of Justice’s Orange County investigation, or to say how many other pattern-or-practice investigations Justice is currently conducting nationwide.
To some, the rollback of the Collaborative Reform Initiative might seem a not-so-important shift designed to please those conservatives who have viewed Justice’s presence in local law enforcement ponds as a hampering intrusion.
In fact, the abandonment of this collaborative approach to reform is extremely damaging to efforts to upgrade the caliber of policing in America and to lower both the number of fatal police shootings and officer deaths.
“It is a terrible step backward,” said Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor emeritus from the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has advised the Justice Department on use of force and other issues. The Collaborative Reform program’s great benefit was that it “offered a process for getting expert opinion on learning a department’s problems and recommending appropriate reforms.”
“Since it was collaborative, the department made a commitment – ‘We are going to do this, and we want Justice’s help doing this,’ ” Walker said.
In addition, Walker said that while Sessions has not said explicitly he has canceled the consent decree program, his comments and Trump’s “make it clear they are ending it.”
Smith, the church leader who saw the benefit of Justice’s involvement in Palmdale and Lancaster, said for Sessions to scale back such programs “constitutes dangerous and irresponsible leadership. People’s lives are at stake.”
Smith is right about the stakes involved.
A 2016 report on police use of force by the Police Executive Research Forum cited published accounts that 990 people were shot and killed by police in 2015 alone in the U.S.; the Forum report also stated that since 2000, an average of about 55 police officers have been shot and killed annually.
The report noted that as many as one-third of the annual total of fatal officer-involved shootings involved incidents in which citizens were not carrying firearms – including encounters dealing with citizens exhibiting signs of mental illness. The report added that in incidents in which neither police nor the public are being threatened with firearms, “leading police executives believe there is significant potential for de-escalation and resolving encounters by means other than deadly force.”
The report concluded that fears for officer safety often have fueled opposition to changes in use-of-force practices but noted: “Rather than unnecessarily pushing officers into harm’s way in some circumstances, there may be opportunities to slow these situations down, bring more resources to the scene, and utilize sound decision-making … to keep officers safe while also protecting the public.”
Walker, the criminal justice expert, says for the Police Executive Research Forum, a highly respected police professional association, to reach this conclusion marks a remarkable evolution in police thinking and is an indicator that, despite the Trump reform rollback, local agencies can be receptive to reforming themselves.
Hopefully, Walker is right. But it is particularly appalling for the Trump administration to step away from local police reform at such a crucial juncture – when law enforcement desperately needs to be building community trust in order to police America’s streets fairly and effectively.
Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She can be contacted at email@example.com.