The Justice Department announced Friday that it is significantly scaling back a program created during the Obama administration to help reform police departments after controversial incidents such as police-involved shootings.
The department will no longer issue audit reports of police departments or suggest reforms; instead it will focus on assisting local law enforcement agencies with specific grants aimed at fighting violent crime.
Under the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), police departments could sign up for the program voluntarily and work with Justice Department officials to improve trust between police and the public. But, according to a background document provided by the Justice Department, the program over the past several years evolved to much broader investigations of police departments and led to tension and a more adversarial relationship between Justice and the participating departments.
“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,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “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.”
On March 31, Sessions directed the Justice Department to review all of its programs involving local law enforcement — including this program, the Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance, which COPS administered. Friday’s announcement brought the review to a close.
The Justice Department’s move was met with immediate criticism from some corners.
Ronald Davis, a criminal justice reform advocate who was the COPS head under former-President Barack Obama, told CNN he disagrees with the Justice Department’s shift and said the changes mean “it’s no longer collaborative reform.”
The Justice Department said the changes will allow it to better assist local law enforcement agencies in fighting gangs and illegal drug activity and other crimes.
Davis countered that the Justice Department already did those tasks well.
“The things Attorney General Sessions says he’s shifting to are actually things the Department of Justice did,” Davis said.
The Congressional Black Caucus criticized the decision and noted it came as protests were underway in St. Louis over a judge finding a former police officer not guilty for the shooting death of a black man.
“This decision is wrong, reckless, insensitive, and immature,” caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, said in the statement. “It also further divides police departments and communities — rich and poor, black and white.”
The ACLU likewise slammed the move.
“Today’s announcement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end a program that provides resources to improve police-community relations as we know it is truly appalling,” said Kanya Bennett, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel. “The police departments benefiting from these resources included Saint Anthony, Minnesota; North Charleston, South Carolina; and Milwaukee — all places where we witnessed traumatic fatal police shootings and police department failures.”
Bennett added, “Ending the program is a big mistake that will adversely impact communities of color.”
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights slammed the move as one of many steps the Justice Department under Sessions has taken to undo Obama-era programs.
“Ending programs that help build trust between police and the communities they serve will only hurt public safety,” said Vanita Gupta, the head of the organization, who led the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Obama.
The Milwaukee Police Department, which engaged in the program after an officer shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in 2014, issued a statement in anticipation of the changes, which mean a review of the police department under the initiative would not be completed. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said it was unfortunate the final version of the report, which includes the police department’s feedback, would not be released, and he took issue with parts of the report critical of his department that had been produced.