After the shooting of Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri caught the attention of the Department of Justice. Prior to Attorney Jeff Sessions declaring the federal government would no longer provide oversight for police departments across the nation, the police department in the city of Ferguson, Missouri was investigated for patterns of unconstitutional violations. The investigation revealed systematic abuses by police officers and the courts. A consent agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice forced the city to reform its policies and change police practice. When Sessions ended the oversight program, this act limited the Justice Department’s ability to investigate. The agency can no longer reform police departments that repeatedly violate the civil rights of the people.
The Department of Justice used to have the oversight to investigate police departments accused of violating the rights of citizens, but this is no longer the case. When the DOJ investigated the police department in Ferguson, the investigation revealed police pulled over citizens without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. They specifically targeted African Americans, used excessive force without justification, and they violated the due process rights of citizens (Stephens and Cambareri 15). Police officers blatantly ignored the rights of citizens, and the leadership failed to provide proper training or guidance.
According to the report by the DOJ, police were encouraged to engage in unconstitutional stops, and systematically violated the First and Fourth Amendment rights of citizens (Stephens and Cambareri 16). Along with unlawful police practices, the court system was investigated. The investigation revealed the court imposed harsh fines and penalties. The investigation also revealed the disparate treatment of African Americans. Police systematically targeted African citizens through racial profiling practices and, eroded the trust of the public through their abusive practices and withholding Miranda rights. The DOJ recommended the implementation of a robust community policing approach.
The federal supervision of local police departments is critical to investigating and preventing similar abuses from surfacing in other police departments. The federal supervision of local police departments has resulted in real reforms that directly impact the safety of the citizen in the involved jurisdiction. In Ferguson, reforms are slow, but they are happening. The police department has diversified their police staff hiring a greater number of African American and Hispanic police officers and they have created a new policy to implement a community policing approach to establish trust with the public (Stephens and Cambareri 90). Through these measures, the tension between police and minority communities has been quelled.
In other cities, the oversight of the Department of Justice has been critical to implementing positive changes in police departments requiring reforms. Based on the Accountability Fact Sheet, the Department of Justice has been responsible for supporting change in numerous police departments (Chappell 571). The oversight by the DOJ has resulted in 13 police departments signing consent decrees (Chappell 571). These decrees are agreements between the police department and the DOJ promising reforms. When Sessions cut the oversight program, the DOJ had active investigations involving the Chicago Police Department, Orange County Florida, Los Angeles Police Department, District of Columbia Metropolitan Police, and the University of Montana Department of Public Safety.
Jeff Sessions made an error in judgment when he ended the oversight program. Police departments must be transparent. Through oversight committees, police are more accountable, and the public faces less of a risk of being abused by law enforcement (Stephens and Cambareri 4). The use of oversight measures by the federal government improves the quality of policing and prevents abuses, like racial profiling or applying excessive force. By cutting the federal oversight program, Sessions has left the public vulnerable to being subjected to abuses by police departments. Police departments who object to oversight by the federal government fear they will be subject to reforms (Chappell 572). On the other hand, police departments that are accountable and transparent do not have a problem with federal oversight.
As an alternative to federal police oversight, the DOJ proposes improving data collection methods. Local police departments would be required to provide the federal government with data on community member complaints and use of force incidents before they could receive federal funding. Accountability can be improved through the proper dissemination of information (Chappell 572). Police departments will have to take steps to reform their practices to ensure the data they provide does not reveal patterns of constitutional violations or abuses against the public. The second alternative is using civilian oversight committees to monitor the activity of police. These committees are concerned with the rights of the citizen and ensuring law enforcement are engaging in effective, legal policing practice.
Jeff Sessions’ decisions to end federal oversight makes citizens vulnerable to unconstitutional practices by the police. Police oversight is essential especially in a time when there is major tension between police and minorities communities. Without oversight, police departments are free to violate the law, discriminate, and undermine the trust of the public. The use of federal oversight helps improve the quality of policing, supports the punishment of police officers who violate the law, and increases public trust. The use of oversight can address community complaints about officer misconduct and result in a more effective, community policing approach. The federal government had the authority to step in and force changes to protect the public. Without oversight, police officers are not held accountable for abuses against the public.
Chappell, Alison. “Consent Decrees and Police Reform: A Piece of the Puzzle or a Puzzling Policy”. Criminology & Public Policy 16.1 (2018): 571-573.
Stephens, Darrell, and Jacob Cambareri. Civilian Oversight of the Police in Major Cities. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 2017.