Tom Perez: I spent years working to reform police forces; Trump wants to roll it all back
Attorney General William Barr possesses a critical tool to reform broken police forces, but he refuses to use it. A few days ago, he said he didn’t think it was necessary to open a pattern-or-practice investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department after the death of George Floyd.
He claimed that such an investigation would not improve the situation, then said he doesn't believe law enforcement is "systemically racist." As a former Justice Department civil rights attorney who opened and oversaw numerous pattern-or-practice investigations into police departments, I’m appalled by his failure to act.
A pattern-or-practice investigation is a full-scale, top-to-bottom review of a police department’s record by the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Its purpose is simple: To root out abuse and misconduct, and to change the culture of police departments through court-enforceable agreements. Then-Sen. Joe Biden led the effort to put this tool in place after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, and it has helped us make remarkable progress over the past three decades.
When I was assistant attorney general for civil rights during the first term of the Obama-Biden administration, we used our pattern-or-practice authority to help change the culture of police departments from Seattle to New Orleans to Puerto Rico.
From 2009 through 2012, we opened 15 pattern-or-practice investigations, nearly double that of the previous administration in the four years before we took office. And we reached 10 agreements for the comprehensive reform of those departments, including seven consent decrees.
Reforms are saving lives
Community engagement was always key to the success and sustainability of these reforms. In Portland, Oregon, for example, we launched an investigation into a series of fatal police shootings of people who were in a mental health crisis. Our findings highlighted the need to develop a community-based mental health infrastructure. We worked closely with community leaders, members of the public and the police department to bring sweeping changes. We gave officers the tools they needed to safely and respectfully interact with residents living with mental illness. And we required the department to hire community treatment officers trained in deescalation practices.
A few years later, I received a call from someone involved in that case. He said he wanted me to know that those reforms had saved a life that day.
While progress is never easy and rarely swift, it is possible. Look at the Los Angeles Police Department. Today’s LAPD still has its issues, but it is night and day from where we were 30 years ago. A consent decree helped usher in a new era built on trust and mutual respect with the community. In fact, a 2017 poll showed nearly 60% of residents trust the LAPD to do the right thing in a given situation, a statistic that would’ve been unimaginable 28 years ago. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice summed it up best when she said, “This is not your grandfather’s LAPD.”
We saw a similar transformation after we investigated Joe Arpaio and Arizona's Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Arpaio was a disgrace to law enforcement, and the combination of our pattern-or-practice authority and a private lawsuit resulted in major reforms to that department. The voters of Maricopa County rose up, too. They booted Sheriff Arpaio and his immigrant-baiting tactics out of office, and their activism spawned a new generation of diverse leaders who better reflect and serve their community.
That’s what needs to happen in Minneapolis and in cities across the country. We need a full-scale, nationwide reform of our police departments, and we need it now.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is no stranger to these challenges. He is a strong champion of community policing, and his June 2 speech is a critical blueprint for reform. Now it’s our responsibility to make sure he can put his plan into action by electing him as the next president of the United States.
Trump is hostile to new reforms
It’s no secret that Donald Trump and his Justice Department are openly hostile to new reforms — they’ve even tried rolling back the old ones. They’ve only opened one pattern-or-practice investigation, and they’re working to dismantle the consent decrees we’ve already entered into so they can give these police departments free rein once more. Half a year before the killing of George Floyd, Attorney General William Barr actually had the nerve to say this: “If communities don’t give (police) support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
That’s backwards in my book. Respect is a two-way street. Trust is a two-way street. But law enforcement has filled those streets with the blood and bodies of the people they’re supposed to protect. And when you refuse to hold lawless cops like Derek Chauvin and lawless sheriffs like Joe Arpaio accountable, you are doing a disservice to both the community and anyone who wears a badge.
At a time when we desperately need a leader who can heal these wounds, Donald Trump has done nothing but sow division. He has advocated violence against protesters, rather than condemning the racist violence that launched these protests in the first place. I may not work at the Justice Department anymore, but I didn’t spend most of my career fighting police brutality only to see a demagogue cheer it on from the White House.
America is hurting. Our African American communities are hurting. And we will not heal through silence, scare tactics or the status quo. We will heal through activism and action, through justice and progress.
Prosecuting the officers in the death of George Floyd is an important first step on the road to recovery. In addition, we need to prosecute the culture of systemic racism and violence in police departments across the country. Only through bold and comprehensive reform will we be able to move forward.
So long as black men and women cannot breathe, we cannot rest.
Tom Perez is chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a former assistant attorney general for civil rights. Follow him on Twitter: @TomPerez