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A fresh look at Trump reversing Obama's police investigations policy

Obama's Justice Department played a constructive role in holding police departments accountable for abuses. Trump's DOJ changed direction.
Justice Department Officials Announce Charges Against HSBC
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference to announce money laundering charges against HSBC on December 11, 2012.Ramin Talaie / Getty Images

In the fall, Minneapolis Police Union President Lt. Bob Kroll spoke at a campaign rally for Donald Trump and praised the current president for breaking with the policies of his predecessor. "The Obama administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable," Kroll said at a Trump rally. "The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around."

The Minneapolis officer didn't go into a lot of detail about what it was, exactly, the Democratic White House did to "oppress" police departments, but we can probably guess what the complaint was about. A Vox report noted a few years ago that during Barack Obama's presidency, the Justice Department "played a key role in exposing abuses from local police departments, exposing everything from unjustified shootings to a broader pattern of racism in a police force."

The report added that under Obama, the Justice Department took on more civil rights investigations of local police departments than his recent predecessors, launching probes into "nearly two dozen police departments, from Baltimore to Ferguson, Missouri to Chicago -- uncovering a wide range of abusive, even racist, police practices."

So what happened? Donald Trump took office, Jeff Sessions became attorney general, and in November 2018, the Republican-led Justice Department went in a dramatically different direction. The New York Times reported at the time that Sessions "drastically limited the ability of federal law enforcement officials to use court-enforced agreements to overhaul local police departments accused of abuses and civil rights violations." The Justice Department had been using court-approved consent decrees to create blueprints for changing law enforcement, but the Alabama Republican decided to make that far more difficult.

The move means that the decrees, used aggressively by Obama-era Justice Department officials to fight police abuses, will be more difficult to enact. Mr. Sessions had signaled he would pull back on their use soon after he took office when he ordered a review of the existing agreements, including with police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., enacted amid a national outcry over the deaths of black men at the hands of officers.

The attorney general added at the time that he hadn't actually read the Civil Rights Division's investigative reports on police departments.

Over the weekend, HuffPost's Ryan J. Reilly added that since Trump took office, "his appointees at the Justice Department have all but eliminated the federal government's police reform work. The Civil Rights Division's police practices group has shrunk by half, and it hasn't opened any major pattern-or-practice investigations that could rein in police departments that regularly violate constitutional rights. The Trump administration [also] effectively killed a collaborative reform initiative created by DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services that allowed cities to voluntarily implement reform, a move that left the local officials who had partnered with DOJ feeling abandoned."

All of this is relevant anew for reasons that should be obvious. It's a reminder that the Justice Department can, with the proper leadership, play a constructive role in holding police departments accountable for abuses. It's also a reminder that election results matter.

But it's against this backdrop that Attorney General Bill Barr is prepared to launch a federal investigation into George Floyd's death in Minneapolis. And while it's true that Barr and Sessions are very different people, some skepticism about the road ahead is inevitable.

For one thing, Barr's record on these issues does not inspire confidence. For another, the attorney general has apparently already decided that "far-left extremist groups" are responsible for recent violence.