The U.S. Justice Department is back in the business of policing local police.
After a four-year hiatus under President Donald Trump, the federal government will once again investigate local law enforcement agencies for systemic constitutional violations, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced last month. First in the queue are the police departments of Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky.
Both cities were at the heart of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, which called for changes to law enforcement practices and justice for the killings of two unarmed Black people by police — Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The federal investigations and possible court orders to follow could take years to complete. Local police departments under federal oversight complain about the immense strain on resources and personnel it takes to meet court-approved benchmarks for accountability, training and amended use-of-force policies. Community activists sometimes feel federal oversight does not do enough to fix systemic issues.
But federal interventions have led to major innovations in modern policing and at times renewed trust in law enforcement in communities that were traditionally the target of discriminatory and excessive force.
Interviews with former Justice Department officials, lawyers in charge of monitoring the progress of the local police departments, and current and former law enforcement officials suggest that while federal oversight cannot solve every issue in local policing, it can spur significant changes that would not have been possible without it.
“I never once in my time there saw DOJ launch one of these investigations unless they had determined there was a long history [of abuses] and the agency has either been unable or unwilling to fix those problems,” said Christy Lopez, a former federal attorney who led the Department of Justice team that investigated the Ferguson Police Department after an officer shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014.
She also led federal investigations of local police in Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans, as well as in Newark, New Jersey, and Missoula, Montana.
“The government has a responsibility to protect people,” continued Lopez, who now co-leads Georgetown Law’s Program on Innovative Policing. “When you have state actors routinely violating people’s rights, of course you need a system for someone else to step in and protect those rights, vindicate those rights.”
Garland announced the federal investigation of the Minneapolis police a day after a jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering Floyd. Garland said the probe will focus on the department’s use of excessive force and its mistreatment of people of color and those with behavioral health issues. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said his department will cooperate with federal investigators.