From [HERE] Federal oversight of local policing could look very different under Donald Trump.
Under President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice (DOJ) regularly investigated high-profile incidents of police use of force. The DOJ also investigated police departments for patterns of malpractice.
Trump has held that policing is a local matter the federal government mostly shouldn’t meddle with.
“The federal government should provide assistance to state and local law enforcement, but should not dictate to state and local law enforcement or interfere, unless invited in by appropriate authorities or when verifiably improper behavior is clearly demonstrated,” Trump’s campaign wrote in a response to questions from the International Association of Chiefs of Police in August.
The DOJ has previously aimed investigations at whole police departments, to determine whether officers have violated citizens’ civil rights regularly because the department condoned or abetted it.
The Obama administration opened about two dozen such investigations, in cities including New York City, Ferguson, and Cleveland. His two predecessors were similarly prolific, according to a count by The Marshall Project.
Trump’s position suggests he’ll cut back on such investigations.
Case by Case
When it comes to investigating individual officers, scholars who’ve analyzed the impact of federal lawsuits have observed they serve as poor guards against misconduct. This is partly because they’re too blunt an instrument, according to Barbara Armacost, law professor at the University of Virginia.
“The criminal sanction has an ‘all or nothing’ quality that exposes the offending officer to the risk of prison, as well as job loss and public humiliation,” she wrote in a 2004 Washington Law Review article. “As a practical matter, the government will not, and probably should not, employ criminal sanctions except in the clearest and most egregious cases of police brutality.”
When an egregious case of police misconduct comes up, the DOJ has sometimes served justice where local prosecutors failed.
For example, after the infamous beating of Frank Jude by off-duty Milwaukee police officers in 2004, a state prosecution ended in acquittal or mistrial for all of the officers.
Then the DOJ stepped in. Four of the officers pleaded guilty, receiving sentences of between 12 and 32 months. Three more were convicted and sentenced to 15 to 17 years.
This year, the department brought charges or secured convictions in about 20 civil rights cases against police officers—mostly for excessive use of force.
Dubbing himself the “law and order” candidate, Trump has a fine line to walk.
If his attorney general reins in DOJ investigations too much, he risks missing some cases in case police erred and justice was due. That may spark civil unrest, especially in communities with frayed relations with police.
Yet, if Trump’s Justice Department doesn’t act with noticeably more restraint, police and their unions may accuse him of backtracking on his campaign promises.