WASHINGTON • The Department of Justice announced on Friday a substantial change in “collaborative reform” doctrine integral in the response by the administration of then-President Barack Obama to the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
The change, which was announced hours after a judge handed down an acquittal of former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley, moves the DOJ distinctly in the “law and order” direction that President Donald Trump campaigned on. The decision also provides a broad hint of how Trump’s Justice Department is likely to respond to the Stockley verdict and the protests that ensued.
The new policy is designed to give local police departments assistance in doing their jobs rather than critique and reform the way they do them.
In the aftermath of Ferguson, St. Louis County joined in a collaborative reform effort with Obama’s DOJ, which issued a report saying that racial profiling data from St. Louis County police were concerning and that its culture was too tactically minded and did not engage the community enough.
But the report also concluded that racial profiling statistics alone didn’t prove whether county officers were biased and that its use of force was roughly half that of the national average. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called the process a “missed opportunity” and said that promises of follow-up reports never came through.
The new policy was announced Friday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had signaled in March that he wanted to go in a new direction that would “effectively promote a peaceful and lawful society, where the civil rights of all persons are valued and protected.”
In the aftermath of Ferguson, Obama’s Justice Department and then-Attorney General Eric Holder proactively sent investigators, mediators and others to the region, and threatened the city of Ferguson with a lawsuit if it did not enter into a “consent decree” to make major changes in courts and policing. Obama’s DOJ also investigated, but it decided not to bring federal charges against former Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson, who also was not indicted by a local grand jury in Brown’s death.
But Friday, Sessions’ DOJ said that, while it wanted to help local law enforcement agencies, it would do so at those agencies’ invitations and engage in collaborative efforts aimed at targeting and preventing crime. A background document supporting the change said the DOJ would engage in “proactive policing,” “effective intelligence and information sharing” and training “for de-escalation strategies, crisis intervention, and citizen engagement to address violent crime.”
In that background document, DOJ said that “over the past several years, Collaborative Reform evolved to include much broader-ranging assessments of law enforcement agencies, identifying criticisms of agency practices as a basis for the COPS office (Office of Community Oriented Policing Services) to recommend significant changes and monitor the adoption of those change.
“This led to the unintended consequences of a more adversarial relationship between DOJ and the participating law enforcement agencies,” the document says.
The “new vision,” the DOJ backgrounder said, includes “focused deterrence approaches” that expand “beyond gun violence reduction to include drug markets, domestic violence, at-risk youth and gangs.”
It calls for collaborative efforts in “mass casualty response,” “active shooter response” and “police response to mass demonstrations.” DOJ also said training in de-escalation strategies and crisis intervention would be part of Trump’s collaborative reform efforts with local police, and said it would help local authorities “prevent gang participation and violence by working with schools and youth for deterrence and intelligence gathering.”
The document says that “the COPS office and DOJ leadership recognized the need to remodel Collaborative Reform so that its focus is on best practices, crime reduction, and the needs of the field as specifically requested by law enforcement agencies.”
Trump, who tweeted on a variety of topics Friday, did not immediately comment on the Stockley decision and the demonstrations that followed. Attempts to get a comment from the White House were unsuccessful. Messages left for Belmar’s press office were not immediately returned.
The change drew immediate criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Kanya Bennett, ACLU’s legislative counsel, called it “truly appalling.
“This program was a voluntary and collaborative partnership between the Department of Justice, law enforcement, and local officials that provided police departments with the tools needed to advance practices against excessive force or biased policing,” she said.