DOJ Kills Obama-Era Police Reform Initiative
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
On September 15th, the Justice Department announced in a press release that it would be uprooting an Obama-era initiative focused on police reforms. The Collaborative Reform Initiative, which has been around since 2011, was originally introduced to rectify community-police relations, particularly in light of the recent extrajudicial shootings of African Americans throughout the country. According to a survey conducted by the Guardian, in 2016 alone, over 1,000 people perished at the hands of local police officers – people of color were disproportionately represented in that number.
COPS and Other Changes
The DOJ announced major changes to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), the department in charge of the initiative in question, purportedly aiming to align the program with the Department’s current “law and order” ethos and to meet unspecified statutory requirements.
The press release is consistent with other recent changes implemented by Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions. One such change was the DOJ’s withdrawal of an Obama-era guidance meant to limit the practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows police officers to take money and property from innocent people.
Sessions was quoted in the September 15th press release as saying, “Changes to this program will fulfill my commitment to respect local control and accountability, while still delivering important tailored resources to local law enforcement to fight violent crime.” He continued, “This is a course correction to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support.”
Conclusion of Ongoing Review
According to the announcement, the changes to the Collaborative Reform Initiative mark the culmination of a review commenced earlier this year in a DOJ memo. In it, Sessions outlined the basic tenets of the current Justice Department, requesting that the deputy AG and associate AG make the appropriate changes.
Among the principles enumerated in that document, several stand out. One indicates that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” Another promulgates the so-called “bad apple” theory, according to which a few poorly behaved officers should not overshadow the “honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform” throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, the memo highlights allegedly “rising crime rates” – a falsity claimed as truth despite ample evidence to the contrary – as a motivating factor in the DOJ’s efforts.
In alignment with these principles, the COPS Office will effectively cease all community-relations reform efforts and supply police departments with resources for fighting violent crime and monitoring protests.
This Is the End
Though the DOJ claimed that it would be implementing “changes” to the program, the outlook for reform is grim. According to some, this could mean the (temporary) end of reform efforts. Chiraag Bains, an expert in criminal justice policy who worked for the Obama administration, told Governing.com the following: “This is a complete abandonment of collaborative reform,” continuing, “It isn’t even fair to call whatever replaces the program 'collaborative reform.'”
Whereas the Justice Department, under Obama, requested comments from the public for long-term reforms focused on reducing police-related violence, the DOJ will now keep out of local policing practices altogether. It should be noted that the Obama-era reforms were never enforceable by the courts.
Shift in Focus
In short, the focus of the Collaborative Reform Initiative has shifted from the community at large to the police officers themselves. That was made explicit in the memo, sent in March, according to which the DOJ seeks to “promote officer safety, officer morale, and public respect for their work,” leaving aside the question of unjust deaths and daily abuses inflicted by police officers.