Monday, October 5, 2020

Trump administration curtails police 'pattern or practice' investigations

 In 2017, a white St. Louis policeman was acquitted of murdering a Black man. The verdict sparked days of protests and clashes with police. Before shifts that week, two officers texted colleagues, expressing excitement.

 “Let’s whoop some ass,” officer Christopher Myers wrote, according to texts obtained by federal agents. Later, he added: “The bosses are being a little more lenient with the use of force by us.”

“The more the merrier!!!” officer Dustin Boone wrote. “It’s going to be fun beating the hell out of these shitheads once the sun goes down and nobody can tell us apart … Just fuck people up when they don’t act right!”

On the third night of protests, the two officers confronted a middle-aged Black protester named Luther Hall. Hall later told authorities his hands were raised when someone grabbed him from behind and slammed him into the ground face first. Then, Hall said, he was struck by police batons and boots. He required spinal surgery and for weeks struggled to eat through a bruised jaw.

The alleged beating was not captured on video. But the accuser made an excellent witness: Hall was an undercover cop, posing as a demonstrator.

The alleged misconduct by police at the 2017 clashes triggered criminal charges against these and other officers. Myers and Boone have pleaded not guilty to criminal civil-rights violations.

For many residents the charges were not enough. They also called for a sweeping review of racial and other problems within the St. Louis department, a so-called “pattern or practice” investigation, a powerful federal tool to address systematic police abuses. The probes enable the Justice Department to sue a police force and compel it to clean up abusive practices.

The U.S. Attorney in St. Louis, Jeff Jensen, got involved, according to a government lawyer familiar with the matter, reaching out to fellow officials appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington to push for a pattern or practice case. Such cases are investigated by a special civil rights unit in Washington.

“He was shut down pretty hard,” the lawyer recalled. “He got the message pretty quick: We weren’t going to be doing these kinds of cases.”

Jensen declined to comment for this story. Lawyers for Boone and Myers didn’t reply to requests for comment.

The decision was part of a broader retreat by the Justice Department from policing America’s police. In nearly four years, Trump officials have opened just one police pattern or practice case, official records show, compared to at least 20 opened during the eight years of the Obama administration.

The Justice Department’s civil rights division “has a strong record of upholding the civil rights of all Americans,” spokeswoman Ali Kjergaard said. “We fully support police reform and have aggressively prosecuted police officers who violate civil rights.”

The result is that at a time when the United States is facing another public reckoning over civil rights abuses by police, the Justice Department unit charged with handling such problems has remained largely sidelined.

“There are 18,000 police departments in the country and they are all doing well?” said Cynthia Deitle, former chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s civil rights unit under presidents Bush and Obama. “No one needs an overseer? Nobody needs to be checked? Everybody’s fine? That just can’t be true.”

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