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The feds are investigating local police departments again. Here's what to expect

Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

The investigations all but stopped when Trump was elected president. In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an order limiting the Justice Department’s ability to investigate and oversee the nation’s 18,000 local police departments, saying it wasn’t the federal government’s responsibility to oversee local policing. He also said the probes hurt police morale.

The Trump administration did not enter into a single consent decree.

But that approach changed last month, when Garland rescinded Sessions’ order.

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During the Obama administration, soon after announcing an inquiry, Justice Department attorneys would head to the jurisdiction under investigation to meet with the chief of police, command staff, police unions and community leaders to explain the scope of the investigation. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will follow the same process, especially given the pandemic.

In past investigations, federal officials spent thousands of hours in the community, conducting interviews and comparing their findings with what they saw in police records.

 

They met with religious leaders; mental health workers; prosecutors and defenders; jailers and the incarcerated; and neighborhood associations.

The federal attorneys often had to manage expectations in the communities. At times, people would have immediate needs, such as a family member in jail, and there wasn’t much the attorneys could do to help them.

Investigators reviewed tens of thousands of pages — everything from emails to official police policies and procedures to civilian complaints to use-of-force records. They also reviewed body camera and dashcam footage of incidents, interviewed officers and accompanied them on ride-alongs, and observed training.

There can be tension between the police departments under investigation and the federal attorneys instructing them on what amounts to a constitutional violation, said Sharon Brett, one of the lead attorneys for the Obama administration’s investigation of the Chicago Police Department. She also worked on consent decrees for Cincinnati; Seattle; Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities.

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