With the newly sworn-in president and a change in administrations I'm wondering what will become of the Justice Department's practice of investigating troubled law enforcement agencies.
I have a suggestion about how poorly disciplined police departments can be made more responsive. But first, a quick look back.
The Obama administration investigated 25 cop shops around the country, looking into complaints of excessive force, racial bias and poor officer training and jail conditions.
When DOJ investigators find a pattern of "bad practices" in a department, they have authority to threaten to file a federal lawsuit against the agency unless it agrees to a legally binding "consent decree" to fix the problems. An independent watchdog usually monitors progress. Under Attorney Generals Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, the DOJ aggressively pursued a record number of consent decrees, 12 in all, with police departments as far flung as Albuquerque, Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri, New Orleans and, most recently, Chicago.
Will the next attorney general follow this trend? Assuming Sen. Jeff Sessions is the next attorney general the answer is: Probably not. At his recent confirmation hearing Sessions made it clear that he thinks threatening lawsuits against whole police departments for the actions of a few bad apples "undermine(s) the respect for police officers and create(s) an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness." Sessions added, "We need to be careful before we do that." He also made it clear that he will do nothing to reverse the existing agreements; they remain in force.
So, who will police the police if the Trump administration pulls back on investigating departments?
Here's a novel thought. How about us? How about if we, the citizens who live in the communities where law enforcement departments have run off the rails, seriously yet civilly demand action from our local politicians? You know, hold their feet to the fire until police chiefs are forced to either change the behavior of offending officers or fire them. If the chiefs fail, then they face termination.
If we, the people, learned anything from the last election it was this: Voters have heft. A determined citizenry can oust ineffective elected officials and demand more accountability from all.
And if they — the politicians who think first about themselves and their party before the community — learned anything from the last election it should have been this: Citizens are fed up to here with politicians who say they will do something about a problem but take no action. It was hard to miss the clarion call from voters to politicians to either put up or shove off.
Now, I agree that sometimes an outsider is needed to steer participants to settle on a solution to a problem. But I'm a firm supporter of states' rights. It has never sat well with me that the federal government can come in and tell locals what they can and cannot do with, say, their education system or their police department. Certainly, local officials know far better what its citizens want and need than a group of bureaucrats from Washington, D.C.
But now it is time for local politicians to step up and earn that paycheck. No more hemming and hawing about reform. No more waiting for a crisis to develop and then throwing taxpayer money at it. Long gone are the days where assigning a task force to study something is all that gets done. The citizens who elected you want real leadership. They expect more, especially in the arena of public safety and the way the police force — which they pay for via their taxes — interacts with the public.
An analysis by the PBS program "Frontline" found that of the 68 DOJ investigations conducted over the last 20 years, the No. 1 complaint was that officers used excessive force against civilians. The second-most-often-heard allegation had to do with racially motivated policing, wherein officers single out one group — usually blacks or Hispanics — for unfair stop and searches or false arrests.
These problems between police and civilians have existed for decades. When can we finally expect some solutions? There's got to be a more efficient way to train front-line officers so they understand that the vast majority of citizens are on their side and want peace as much as the police do. Indoctrinating new recruits and retraining veteran cops is a job best done close to home and not under the sickle of an authoritarian power from a faraway place.
Citizens worried about police shootings or officer misconduct need to get involved, write letters to politicians and get to the next town-hall meeting. The mayors who appoint the chiefs of police, the city councilors who hear citizen complaints and the state lawmakers who vote on training budgets need to be put on notice that the responsibility to improve the status quo rests with them
Otherwise, you can bet the farm the feds will be back, forcing local politicians to do what they think is best.
To find out more about Diane Dimond visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.