The federal government is getting back in the business of fighting systemic racism and forcing local police departments to halt abusive practices. The Justice Department has opened pattern-or-practice discrimination investigations of the Minneapolis and Louisville police departments. It also issued indictments in the February 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, charging three civilian suspects with hate crimes. These are all strong signs that one of America’s most powerful legal weapons — the full weight of the federal government — is once again being used to fight injustice.
Frustrations and anger have been growing for years over the frequency of killings by police targeting unarmed people of color. Viral videos by witnesses showing suspects presenting no major threat at the time of their deaths have fueled nationwide outrage. Protests have made their way from the streets to the ballot box, with many voters supporting extreme approaches to reform such as defunding police — a process now gaining momentum under Mayor Tishaura Jones. She recently voted to restrict the filling of existing police vacancies and to move $4 million from the police budget to fund social service initiatives.
But law enforcement reform, not the weakening of local police forces, should still be the goal. The Biden administration’s review of cities with records of questionable policing practices signals a much more aggressive approach toward that goal.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced last week that the Justice Department would be investigating whether the police departments behind the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd systemically engage in discriminatory practices. Taylor was killed inside her apartment by Louisville, Kentucky, police. The murder-by-asphyxiation of Floyd in Minneapolis, which already has yielded one officer’s conviction, ignited protests around the country last year.
But President Donald Trump’s administration focused more on a violent response to protests than to addressing the abuses that sparked the protests. He also ordered his Justice Department to dismantle federal consent decrees, such as the one imposed on Ferguson, that helped impose reforms on reluctant local governments.
A more aggressive Justice Department approach under Biden will put the nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation on notice that the days of police impunity are over.
Garland’s experienced and measured leadership, along with that of a president who doesn’t seek to interfere with or politicize the department’s decisions, demonstrates the federal government’s seriousness about halting law enforcement abuses and rooting out racist elements that have undermined Americans’ faith in the criminal justice system.
Congress, the other major actor in this federal reform effort, is currently debating the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would offer more tools for the Justice Department to hold local police departments accountable.
These are important high-profile steps to serve notice to police departments that federal tolerance of wanton abuse has reached its limit — tolerance that never should have been accepted to begin with.