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How DOJ Has Taken A Pro-Police Stance Under President Trump


George Floyd's death has once again put a spotlight on racial discrimination and the excessive use of force by police. Speaking to Fox News Radio this week, President Trump had this to say.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The police departments, everybody has to do better, has to do better. This is a long-term problem. This didn't happen today.

CHANG: But the Justice Department under Trump has backed away from Obama-era reforms meant to address this very issue. Instead, activists say, it's adopted a pro-police approach. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has this story.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: From the beginning, the Trump administration's stance on the question of policing and calls for police reform has been consistent. Here's Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, speaking to the Fraternal Order of Police in August of 2017.


JEFF SESSIONS: He is exceptionally proud to have run as the law and order president. And I'm proud to stand with you. And the Department of Justice is proud to stand with you. We have your back. We back the blue.

LUCAS: That's the position of the current attorney general, William Barr, as well. Speaking to the same police organization last year, Barr lamented what he called an increasingly vocal minority that portrays the police as the bad guys.


WILLIAM BARR: And whenever there is a confrontation involving the use of force by police, they automatically start screaming for the officers' scalps, regardless of the facts.

LUCAS: That rhetoric and the policies behind it mark a dramatic shift from the Obama administration. After the unrest in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., the Justice Department opened what's called a pattern or practice investigation into the local police department. That's a tool the Civil Rights Division has to investigate unconstitutional policing, excessive force and other systemic police misconduct. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department opened 25 investigations into local law enforcement agencies nationwide. And it entered into 14 consent decrees, which are court-enforced agreements with local police to implement reforms. The department also put limits on the transfer of military gear to local law enforcement to address complaints about the militarization of police.

ROY AUSTIN: It was making real change. And we were starting to see, you know, the culture change that actually needs to happen here.

LUCAS: Roy Austin focused on policing in the Obama administration, first at the Justice Department and then at the White House.

AUSTIN: The Trump administration immediately walked in and started dismantling all of that.

LUCAS: Less than three months after Trump's inauguration, Sessions ordered a review of federal agreements with local law enforcement agencies. Consent decrees, Sessions said, can, hurt police morale. He scrapped the limited restrictions Obama had imposed on the transfer of military equipment to local police. Sessions said those limits put police and communities they protect at risk. And under his leadership, the department largely walked away from pattern or practice investigations. Sessions said it isn't the federal government's job to manage state and local law enforcement. The largest police organization in the country, the Fraternal Order of Police, backed these moves. Police reform advocates and civil rights leaders, such as National Urban League President Marc Morial did not.

MARC MORIAL: Attorney General Sessions abdicated from Day 1 his responsibility. He was contemptuous of his responsibility under the civil rights laws. Attorney General Barr has continued that policy.

LUCAS: Morial said the Justice Department's role is critical in helping state and local officials tackle police departments that have a history of constitutional violations.

MORIAL: You need that partnership with the federal government. You need the strong hand. of the federal government.

LUCAS: In the wake of Floyd's death, the Justice Department opened a federal civil rights investigation into the officers involved. And Barr has promised that justice will be served. The department has not responded to calls from lawmakers and activists for a similar investigation into the Minneapolis PD. On Thursday, Barr acknowledged that Floyd's death had exposed longstanding concerns that many African Americans have about the police, and he said that must change. But he said he still believes that the vast majority of law enforcement does not use excessive force. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.