The department whose first leader under Trump, former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, declared in his inaugural speech that Washington would no longer be “dictating to local police how to do their jobs” must now develop a system to certify and reward police departments that meet high standards for the use of force.
And Attorney General William Barr, who has aimed the bulk of his fire on the topic at “punks” who lack respect for the police, will now be in charge of building and publicizing information from a database that tracks abusive cops.
Criminal justice reform advocates, including some who worked with the administration to craft the executive order, are left with concerns that the department may diminish the reform effort.
“We do have some skepticism about how this is going to be implemented by Barr and the Justice Department,” said Inimai Chettiar, the legislative and policy director of the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform group that supports the White House’s plan for reform. “We know that that entity is not particularly criminal justice reform-oriented.”
Criminal justice reformers have found their footing in Washington in recent years, gaining momentum and power with the backing of allies in both parties of Congress and the White House, where Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has championed the issue. But Barr and his predecessor Sessions have long been viewed as obstacles.
Barr, whose conservative beliefs on criminal justice have underpinned Washington policy for 30 years, when he first served in the Justice Department and argued for mass incarceration programs, has made room for slight shifts in recent weeks, saying that Floyd’s death had “driven home” a breakdown in the criminal justice system that disfavored African Americans.
He’s also doubled down on his law-and-order persona: when peaceful marches gave way to rioting in the nation’s capital, he summoned federal law enforcement to patrol the streets and approved the forcible clearing of peaceful protesters outside the White House one night.
Behind the scenes, as the White House debated how to take its first steps toward police reform, Barr argued for minimizing the breadth of national guidelines in the White House document — deferring to local police forces to set their own policies — and for leaving more significant reform proposals up to Congress, according to people familiar with the matter.
The executive order that Trump signed Tuesday contains moderate reforms, like the tracking program that will encourage localities to submit information on officers that have been fired or found in court to have used excessive force. The Justice Department will also direct federal grants toward police departments that are credentialed for having use of force and deescalation policies and banning the use of chokeholds, except when lethal force is authorized. Working with federal health officials, the department will increase training on programs that pair social workers with police to answer mental health and homelessness calls.
Lawmakers in both parties have put forward ambitious packages with further reform efforts and stiffer incentives, although sticking points — like the use of so-called no-knock warrants, and qualified immunity, which shields public figures from being sued for most actions taken in the course of their official work — make any compromise far from certain.
On Thursday and Friday, Barr traveled to Boston and New York to meet with leaders of the cities’ police departments, and he is planning to seek insight and advice on the reform effort from a number of police chiefs across the country in the coming weeks, according to a Justice Department official.
As he begins to carry out the administration’s first attempt at curbing police misconduct, Barr will be treading unfamiliar ground.
The Justice Department’s political leadership under the Trump administration has endorsed a policing policy that prioritized stamping out a national uptick in violent crime and boosting the morale of street cops, who they argued had been antagonized under the Obama era.
In one of his first moves at the department, Sessions, who served as attorney general from 2017 to 2018, shut down a practice of investigating allegations of systemic misconduct by police forces that had become routine under former President Barack Obama and resulted in court-enforced consent decrees that mandated reform at problematic departments.
“They made it very clear that policing the police was not only not a priority of the administration but something they viewed as nefarious,” said Kristy Parker, a longtime civil rights prosecutor at the Justice Department who served under Sessions for eight months.
Barr has maintained that course, focusing on officer suicides so far in his tenure. In December, he warned that communities that don’t respect their police risk losing their protection. Days later, he hosted an Italian dinner for New York Police Department officers in Queens.
In interviews and public remarks since Floyd’s death, Barr has offered his most nuanced perspective on policing and race, telling CBS News that he did not believe law enforcement was “systemically racist,” while acknowledging that African Americans may face unfair scrutiny by police.
The Justice Department is now conducting a civil rights investigation into Floyd’s killing, as well as into the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while on a run by white neighbors in Georgia in February, and Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March.
Some advocates see the steps the administration and Barr are taking as signs of good faith effort that have staying power.
“I think everybody understands that this is not just one of those moments where we’re going to say, ‘Okay, we tried to do it, we couldn’t do it’ — this seems to be a lot different,” said Mark Holden, a board member at the conservative Americans for Prosperity advocacy group who has worked with the Trump administration on criminal justice reform efforts. “At the end of the day, there’s got to be accountability and transparency because that will build the trust.”
Still, other advocates point to the Justice Department’s implementation of the First Step Act, a sweeping prison reform effort passed with bipartisan support in 2018, as an example of its poor shepherding of progressive policy.
Thousands of federal inmates have already been released early under provisions of the law, although outside groups have been unhappy with the Justice Department for an interpretation of the reform that’s led prosecutors to challenge hundreds of other release applications. The Justice Department’s initial proposal for a tool to rate inmates’ risk of recidivism that was required under the law also drew criticism for an overly-broad definition of key factors that deflated the number of inmates eligible for release. It has since offered an updated proposal.
Despite his past advocacy for increasing the prison population, Barr has promised to “faithfully implement” the law.
“Personnel is policy,” said Ames Grawert, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, a left-leaning policy institute. “If you’re going to have policing reforms, if you’re going to have broader criminal justice reform policies that have discretionary elements built into them, you want to make sure the people wielding that discretion believe in the cause.”