The city of Waterloo has agreed to pay $2.75 million this year to settle a wrongful death case and four other lawsuits over excessive uses of force by police. Other officers’ actions toward African-Americans led to an acquittal in a murder trial and will likely inspire more lawsuits. The series of scandals nearly cost Police Chief Dan Trelka his job in September.
Let’s all hope he is sincere, because under Donald Trump’s administration, police misconduct and especially excessive force against black people will face a lot less scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice and its Civil Rights Division.
President-elect Trump’s pick for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is horrifying on many levels. How overtly racist do you have to be rejected for a judgeship by a Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee during the Reagan years? As a U.S. attorney, Sessions prosecuted civil rights workers trying to help black people vote. He described the NAACP and ACLU as un-American organizations. He told a colleague he wished he could decline to investigate all civil rights cases. He agreed with a man who characterized a white civil rights attorney as “a disgrace to his race.”
As recently as 2013, Sessions told Roll Call reporter Meredith Shiner that enforcing the Voting Rights Act was unnecessary in Shelby County, Alabama, because that county “never had a history” of denying voters the opportunity to cast a ballot. Shiner commented earlier this week, “I cannot overstate how that was probably the most demonstrably false thing a politician ever said to me on-the-record.”
Even before today’s news, it was obvious the Trump administration’s approach to policing issues will differ sharply from President Barack Obama’s. Matt Zapotosky, Wesley Lowery and Mark Berman reported for the Washington Post on November 10,
The [Justice] department, which under President Obama built an aggressive civil rights division, is likely to take a more hands-off approach toward police departments alleged to have overused force and to loosen restrictions on surveillance in Muslim communities, according to legal analysts and Trump’s public statements. […]
Under Obama, officials have tried to position Muslims as a partner in the fight against terrorism, and they have been supportive of broad changes to the criminal-justice system, including more lenient sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. The department has also taken a tough stance toward policing issues — scrutinizing entire departments with comprehensive “pattern or practice” inquiries and investigating high-profile incidents of officers killing people. […]
In recent months, the Justice Department has opened investigations of fatal police shootings in Baton Rouge and Tulsa. The department also is investigating the Chicago police force, the country’s second-biggest local department, after video footage emerged of an officer fatally shooting a teenager there.
A U.S. official familiar with the investigation said that it is “unlikely” that the inquiry will wrap up before Trump is sworn in, and that once the new Justice Department leaders are in place, they could react to the investigation by deciding to take out some required reforms. […]
“The consent decree agreements already in place [with police departments] — they could just choose not to enforce. They can let it all die by doing nothing,” said Jonathan Smith, who for five years was the Justice Department’s chief of special litigation, overseeing investigations of police departments.
Here in Iowa, Waterloo Chief Trelka and his allies will be among the primary beneficiaries of a new direction at the Justice Department.
The Police Executive Research Forum, a non-profit funded by DOJ grants, sent a team to Waterloo last year. Experts submitted nine pages of recommendations in September 2015 to improve police-community relations, officer training, the complaint process, and the use of force policy.
There’s no sign Trelka acted on any of that advice until he became worried about losing his job a few months ago. Nor did he discipline any of the officers involved in the excessive force cases that made news in August, when three lawsuits were settled. At that time, Trelka told one interviewer the DOJ “gave us a favorable report”–a ludicrous way to describe what the Police Executive Research Forum (not the DOJ) actually said.
Speaking to KCRG last week, Trelka continued to mischaracterize the PERF report as a Department of Justice review and left the reporter with the false impression that the recommendations came out earlier this year, rather than in September 2015. (I alerted several KCRG newsroom staff to the factual errors in this story; no one replied to my messages or made any corrections.)
Trelka acknowledged that lack of diversity is a problem in his department, where only two black officers police a city with Iowa’s highest percentage of African-American residents.
“There are times where our newer officers will roll up on two seventeen year old black men standing on the corner of the street, Trelka says. And they will have a preconceived notion that they are gang members. They are not. And the message I just articulated to you. I need to articulate to my officers.” […]
The solution Trelka believes is getting officers out and involved more in the community. He also wants to sit down with some people his officers may have arrested to see how they can fix the department.
Trelka says, “I’ve developed a team of felons. A team of convicted citizens who have been convicted of felonies who are going to sit down with me, and we are going to look at our policies. Especially use of force policies.” […]
Ultimately, Trelka says the Department of Justice report paints a picture of a department disconnected, and a black community wanting better relationships with police.
Getting officers to spend more time in the community, building relationships with African-American residents, and forming committees to assess department policies were all part of last year’s report by the Police Executive Research Forum.
But as a DOJ spokesperson told me in September, the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services program, which funded the PERF review, provides “technical assistance,” with no enforcement. Rather, “it is up to the police department to follow up on any recommendations.”
Local activists who wanted the DOJ to conduct a thorough review of the Waterloo department, along the lines of this year’s investigation of Baltimore police, had reason to hope for action had Hillary Clinton been elected president.
Under President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, local departments will be policing themselves.
Asset forfeiture is a crime-fighting tool that enables law enforcement to seize cash or property that’s considered linked to illicit activity. The theory behind the asset forfeiture system is to choke off the funding stream used to bankroll criminal ventures, such as drugs and human trafficking or money laundering. I agree that it’s a worthy and important public policy to help thwart crime. However, it seems that sometimes law enforcement authorities increasingly have used civil asset forfeiture as a funding source for the government with thin regard for civil rights and without enough focus on actual criminal activity. Investigations by journalists and civil liberties advocates have exposed perverse incentives that have nudged the enforcement of forfeiture laws off kilter with constitutional principles. It doesn’t seem to pass constitutional muster when our system of justice allows law enforcement entities to prioritize their funding above the rights of law-abiding citizens. Essentially, a profit motive is trampling the rights of those who, in many cases, aren’t even accused or convicted of wrongdoing. This conflict of interest tips the scales against the centuries-long standard of innocence until proven guilty. As a result, law-abiding people get caught up in an over-aggressive dragnet. Enough is enough. Reforms enacted in 2000 haven’t resulted in a strong enough check to curb this abusive overreach by the government. […]
[…] The idea that the government can seize and forfeit personal property, cars, cash and bank accounts, under the guise of law enforcement, with a lower burden of proof and very little procedural protections for individuals and small business owners, seems unheard of in a nation founded upon limited government, due process and fundamental civil liberties. […] The Justice Department administers a program called the Equitable Sharing Program. It allows local law enforcement to keep up to 80 percent of the assets that they seize. The trajectory of the program has climbed considerably in recent years, by the billions of dollars. Those who have been mistreated by forfeiture have their lives and livelihoods turned upside down. It has put law-abiding citizens in the cross hairs of an unfair process that produces profits for police but undermines the value of the forfeiture laws to target crime. Legislation is needed to rein in abuses and prevent government overreach.
[…] For starters, the direct quid pro quo between asset forfeiture and funding should be eliminated. Law enforcement shouldn’t be relying on funds obtained from forfeiting the particular assets that they have seized or shift crime-fighting priorities based on financial considerations. In addition, real procedural reforms must be enacted for people whose assets are seized, including prompt timelines for government action and the ability to challenge the seizure promptly before a judge. And, individuals who cannot afford a lawyer to guide them through the system should be provided one. […] The government’s burden of proof for forfeiting assets needs to be raised.
Grassley quickly released a statement this morning supporting Trump’s choice for attorney general: “Senator Sessions is a respected member and former Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee who has worked across the aisle on major legislation. He knows the Justice Department as a former U.S. attorney, which would serve him very well in this position. With this background, I’m confident he would be reported favorably out of the committee.”
I wouldn’t expect the Judiciary Committee chairman to care that Sessions will eviscerate enforcement of voting rights and civil rights laws, but you’d think Grassley would be concerned about the demise of his “Due Process Act” to reform civil forfeiture law. So much for the idea that Iowa’s senior senator will use his clout to rein in police abuses of power.