How Trump’s Hands-Off Approach to Policing Is Frustrating Some Chiefs
The changes, designed to ease pressure on law enforcement, have actually encountered some resistance from police chiefs in cities that participated in the programs. And those chiefs work not only in big-city Democratic strongholds, but also in places like Spokane, which has a Republican mayor and is the largest city in a county that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump.
In interviews, some of the chiefs said the new direction was out of step with a growing consensus that rebuilding community trust is essential to fighting crime, particularly after a spate of high-profile police shootings spurred a national debate on policing and fueled the Black Lives Matter movement and the Blue Lives Matter response. At one point, the collaborative reform initiative was popular enough among chiefs that there was a monthslong wait to join it; now, the Justice Department has told at least one city that it must file a public records request even to see the program’s research on its police department, internal records show.
In explaining its decision to chiefs and the media, the Justice Department has said that some police departments complained that the program became too aggressive and produced wide-ranging reports that contained errors.
“The President tasked the Attorney General with reducing violent crime, and the Justice Department believes the changes to the Collaborative Reform Initiative will help accomplish this goal by returning control to local law enforcement agencies and by targeting the department’s assistance to the actual needs of those agencies,” Devin M. O’Malley, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that “America’s law enforcement community stands resolutely with the Attorney General and the decisions he has made to enforce the rule of law,” though the statement did not mention any chiefs who supported Mr. Sessions’s decision to change collaborative reform.
Diane Hobley-Burney, the chief of police in Fort Pierce, Fla., in another pro-Trump county, signed up for collaborative reform after an officer killed an unarmed black motorist in 2016. After the Trump administration reined in collaborative reform this September, ending her chance at receiving a report recommending improvements for her police force, Chief Hobley-Burney sent a letter to the Justice Department seeking to remain in the program while expressing how “disappointed” she was in the program’s reduced ambitions.
“We were working together for the common good,” she said in an interview. “I did not see it as being heavy-handed in any way.”
The Fraternal Order of Police had a dimmer view of the collaborative reform initiative. While chiefs answer to mayors and city councils, the union represents rank-and-file officers, some of whom faced heavy scrutiny in the wake of police shootings.
During last year’s presidential campaign, the union posted to its website a 12-page questionnaire from Mr. Trump in which he promised that the union would “always have a seat at the table” in his administration. And in March, shortly after Jeff Sessions was sworn in as attorney general, he delivered on that promise for Mr. Trump, meeting with two senior union officials, according to a copy of Mr. Sessions’s calendar reviewed by The New York Times.
One of the officials, James O. Pasco, said they discussed a “laundry list of issues,” including concerns about the collaborative reform program. The union, which also met with the president at the White House, says the program veered well beyond its advisory mission and was used as a cudgel against rank-and-file officers, who were then pulled away from policing to comply with new bureaucratic requirements.
Within a month of the meeting, Mr. Sessions ordered a comprehensive review of federal policing programs, a decision that resulted in the rollback of both collaborative reform and consent decrees.
Interviews and government records show that the police union, along with some of Mr. Sessions’s top advisers, helped to lay the foundation for the Trump administration’s new direction — all united in opposition to what they consider federal meddling in the affairs of local police.
One of the advisers, Steven H. Cook, is a former beat cop who helped advise on the Justice Department’s changes to the collaborative reform initiative, according to a person briefed on the matter who was not authorized to reveal internal discussions.
A mainstay of conservative law-and-order circles, Mr. Cook ran the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, a group that operates loosely as a labor union but also as an advocate for tough-on-crime policies. While leading the group, Mr. Cook teamed up with Mr. Sessions, when he was a senator, to oppose legislation that would have softened mandatory life sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
William C. Killian, who was the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, where he served as Mr. Cook’s boss, said his former colleague had long been skeptical of federal officials stepping in to second-guess local policing matters.
“He kind of felt like the police officers had a hard enough time as it was,” Mr. Killian said. “They didn’t need any extra pressure on them.”
That philosophy is now evident across the Justice Department as it revisits Obama-era programs aimed at repairing frayed ties with communities.
In August, Mr. Sessions announced that police departments could have broader access to surplus military equipment like grenade launchers used for tear gas and armored vehicles, which had stoked tensions with protesters after police shootings. Mr. Sessions’s announcement, which fully reinstated a Pentagon program that the Obama administration curbed, came in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, where he described the equipment as “lifesaving gear.”
The Justice Department also rewrote criteria for local policing grants to restrict money for so-called sanctuary cities that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities, creating a sense of fear among residents in those cities that complicates crime-fighting efforts, police chiefs say. Additionally, a community policing grant program struck a section on “Building Trust With L.G.B.T.Q. Communities,” a reversal of the Obama-era effort for law enforcement to cultivate a rapport with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
While these changes aligned with Mr. Sessions’s political views, some local chiefs have opposed them.
“I kind of resist the attorney general’s narrative that the Department of Justice has been this oppressive presence in law enforcement,” said Chris Magnus, the police chief in Tucson, Ariz., a city that leans Democratic in a state dominated by Republicans. “I actually think it’s exactly the opposite. There are far more examples when they have really supported us to do innovative things.”
In keeping with the new direction, Mr. Trump’s proposed budget seeks essentially no increase in funding for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which operates the collaborative reform program and had been poised to receive a large increase in Mr. Obama’s final budget. Mr. Sessions has also not named a new director to run the office.
Chuck Jordan, the chief of police in Tulsa, Okla., a Republican stronghold that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, said he recently asked the office to review his department after an officer shot an unarmed man. Without a new leader, he said, the office has delayed his request.
“Everything is on hold, and that’s not a good place to be in,” said Mr. Jordan, who is instead proceeding with his own community policing changes, including creating a citizens advisory board. “We’re kind of frustrated by the fact that we’re having trouble getting decisions.”
Healing a Community
One night last month, police officers responded to a report of gunshots fired at a home in Spokane. Two white men were suspected of assaulting an African-American man, calling him racial slurs, punching him in the face and threatening him with a gun.
After the suspects were arrested, Spokane’s mayor and its police chief stood in unity at a news conference with civil rights advocates, who applauded the police’s handling of the incident.
“I’m often asked, ‘Why do we need to improve our law enforcement community relations?’” Phillip Tyler, the former president of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Spokane chapter, said at the news conference. “This is why.”
Chief Meidl and others trace the improved community relations to Spokane’s decision in 2013 to participate in the collaborative reform initiative.
“Everyone is facing the right direction,” said Jeffry K. Finer, a civil rights lawyer who represented the estate of Otto Zehm, whose killing by a Spokane officer in 2006 first raised concerns about the department’s problems. Mr. Zehm, who was developmentally disabled, had been trying to buy a Snickers bar at a convenience store when, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, the officer beat him with a baton, shot him with a Taser and hogtied him.
Some officers were skeptical of the Justice Department’s presence. But Chief Meidl, a 23-year veteran of the Spokane force who became chief last year, said “fears were minimized” when officers saw that the program was in fact a collaboration with the Justice Department, not a heavy-handed intervention.
Collaborative reform was overseen by Bernard Melekian and Ron Davis, both former police chiefs who led the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services during the Obama administration. Their version of collaborative reform relied on a network of private consulting firms staffed with former police executives and academic researchers who analyzed use-of-force data and made regular visits to participating cities, where they met with officers and chiefs and participated in community meetings. The Justice Department would then deliver the cities peer-reviewed reports that identified areas of concern and recommendations for improvement.
The result in Spokane, in December 2014, was 42 proposed changes, including better documentation of use of force. The recommendations were nonbinding, but the city’s leadership embraced them, and this year, Chief Meidl reported a 62 percent reduction in complaints and a 29 percent decrease in nondeadly use of force incidents since the collaborative reform initiative was introduced.
“There’s no question in my mind that we are a better department because of our involvement,” Chief Meidl wrote to city officials.
But because of the changes to the program under Mr. Sessions, Spokane will not be getting a final report from the Justice Department confirming the achievements. The report was completed several months ago, according to two people briefed on its drafting, but in September a Justice Department official called Chief Meidl to tell him the program would no longer issue the reports.
Chief Meidl objected, and so did David A. Condon, the city’s Republican mayor, who made a final, unsuccessful plea for the report during a visit to the Justice Department in Washington. “That stamp of approval from an outside agency — acknowledging the progress made — is priceless,” Chief Meidl said.
The Justice Department said it dropped the reports and made other changes because the program had “evolved to include much broader ranging assessments” that caused “the unintended consequence of a more adversarial relationship.”
The program’s new direction “will fulfill the Attorney General’s commitment to respecting local control and accountability,” according to an internal Justice Department email reviewed by The Times.
Chief Meidl and other police chiefs said they feared the changes would do the opposite, denying them access to reports that they hoped would build trust with their communities. Even some departments that were lukewarm about participating in the program objected to being denied final reports.
Jon Belmar, the police chief in St. Louis County, said he signed up for the program as community and federal pressure intensified after violence in nearby Ferguson, Mo. But after receiving initial recommendations, he waited in vain for the Justice Department to produce a follow-up report showing the progress his force had made. Although he decided to carry out the Justice Department’s initial recommendations, he lamented an “opportunity missed” to do more.
In Milwaukee, where some residents complained that collaborative reform was too friendly to the police department, a rough draft of its initial report was leaked to the local news media. That unfinished report contained some errors that painted an overly dark picture of the department, according to federal officials. Although a corrected version has been written, and the police department sought its release to set the record straight, the Justice Department has not done so.
The Republican mayor of North Charleston, S.C., wrote to the Justice Department in August, pleading with the agency to “please provide an update on the status” of its collaborative review, according to a copy of the letter obtained through a public records request. The city joined the program after a police officer fired eight rounds toward the back of a fleeing and unarmed black motorist, Walter Scott, whose death inflamed tensions with police across the country.
The police in St. Anthony, Minn., were early in the review process and were awaiting a list of recommended changes when the program was revamped. The department requested the program last year after an officer shot and killed Philando Castile, a black motorist, whose final moments were streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend. When St. Anthony requested copies of data and notes from the review process, the Justice Department referred them to a link to file a Freedom of Information request, according to emails reviewed by The Times.
The Justice Department has said that its new approach, in addition to facilitating community policing, will focus on providing training and “technical assistance” on various topics that coincide with Mr. Sessions’s priorities, including “officer safety and wellness” and preventing “gang participation and violence.” Criteria for grant money, recently published by the Justice Department, also includes a new requirement that local governments certify that they are cooperating with immigration authorities.
Critics say the changes have essentially killed the program, while several police chiefs said they were confused about the new direction and the meaning of “technical assistance.” Gina Hawkins, the chief in Fayetteville, N.C., which has been approved for such assistance, said a call with a Justice Department official did not offer clarity.
“I said, ‘Well, what does that mean?’” Chief Hawkins said. The reply from the federal official, she said, was, “I’m not quite sure.”
A Missing Consent Decree
The Trump administration’s hostility toward consent decrees, the Justice Department’s most coercive tool to address systemic problems in police departments, is greater than its dislike of voluntary efforts like collaborative reform.
Although Mr. Sessions has said that “a consent decree is not necessarily a bad thing,” he has also called consent decrees “one of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power,” and in March, he ordered a review of all “existing or contemplated consent decrees.”
Advocates of the settlements worry the review could undercut high-profile consent decrees in place in Baltimore and other cities, where they are designed to correct deep institutional problems in police departments. Mr. Sessions’s Justice Department asked for a 90-day delay in the Baltimore consent decree, which a judge denied.
“I want this consent decree,” the Baltimore police commissioner, Kevin Davis, said at a news conference. “We know we have to get better. We know that over many, many years, things have occurred here that prevent the Baltimore Police Department from being the best that it can be.”
Public records and interviews show that Mr. Sessions’s new direction is also having a chilling effect on potential new consent decrees, even in places where there is local support for them. The department declined to push for one in Chicago, and in the small Acadian city of Ville Platte, La., it appears to have dropped Obama-era efforts to impose one.
In 2014, an F.B.I. agent assisting with a murder investigation in Ville Platte stumbled onto a broader problem: The police and sheriff’s deputies there had a habit of throwing people in jail without probable cause or a warrant. The detainees — including witnesses who were not suspected of a crime — were held for days and questioned without access to a lawyer, a phone or even, sometimes, toothpaste and tampons.
The police chief, Neal Lartigue, acknowledged that the detentions, known as 72-hour holds, had been going on for as long as he could remember, and said that he had not known they were unconstitutional.
The F.B.I. agent, Steven Krueger, alerted numerous agencies to his findings, according to interviews with state and local law enforcement officials who recounted the previously unreported events. But his effort stalled: The local district attorney turned out to have been personally involved in the illegal interrogations, the state attorney general at the time declined to take the case, and the state inspector general investigated but did not have the power to prosecute.
The case fell to the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
In a report issued in the waning days of Mr. Obama’s tenure, the civil rights division said the Ville Platte police and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office had illegally detained at least 900 people in a three-year period.
In the Obama administration, such a report typically would have been followed by a consent decree or other court-enforceable agreement, in which the police would agree to carry out specific reforms — most likely, in Ville Platte’s case, in the areas of training officers and rebuilding trust. Local officials in Ville Platte said they were still awaiting a proposed agreement from the Justice Department, but added that they had fully cooperated with the investigation, which, after all, was instigated by a law enforcement official.
In a statement, Mr. O’Malley, the Justice Department spokesman, said the agency was “committed to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of all individuals,” adding that Mr. Sessions was “committed to holding any officer responsible who violates the law without restraining the ability of good cops trying to do their part in reducing violent crimes.”
Mr. O’Malley declined to comment on Ville Platte because the Justice Department has not resolved the matter. It is unclear whether the department will ultimately reach a settlement with the city.
While the police chief and the sheriff have said that the illegal holds have been halted, local politicians and activists are skeptical. In an interview, the chief said he saw no need to repair the community’s trust.
But the mayor, Jennifer Vidrine, a Democrat, said she was especially disturbed to learn that local residents had been too afraid to come forward before federal investigators arrived.
“There’s a reason why the Justice Department exists,” she said. “And if they can provide the proper oversight just to make sure that people are doing things the correct way, I’m for it.”