Justice Department Ends Popular Police Reform Program


The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) retreated from a voluntary program created in response to requests from law enforcement in the wake of the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The announcement came hours after a white police officer was acquitted in the shooting death of a Black man in St. Louis, where local police had signed up for the program but never received the follow-up promised by DOJ.

The Collaborative Reform program was designed to be a less expensive and more cooperative alternative to consent decrees overseen and enforced by federal judges to resolve civil rights suits. Under the program, police departments that requested assistance participated in a one-year review by Justice Department officials, at the end of which they received an assessment with non-binding recommendations. COPS committed to provide two progress reports over the next 18 months, and during that time, local leaders were involved in providing records, lending staff, and holding town hall meetings to bring communities together.

Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division who now works as president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told the Washington Post the collaborative effort “had buy-in from a lot of police chiefs'” because it was a less intrusive process than a “pattern or practice probe” conducted by the civil rights division.

Sixteen police departments across the country signed up for Collaborative Reform, and at least 14 had either begun receiving public reports from COPS or expect to receive reports soon. But since Trump’s inauguration, COPS has not published a single assessment or follow-up report for any of the departments it agreed to help through Collaborative Reform. 

Several police officials have expressed disappointment about the attorney general’s decision to kill the program. In North Charleston, South Carolina, where a former police officer is awaiting sentencing for the murder of Walter Scott, the vice-chair of the police advisory commission said they had been “counting on” the Collaborative Reform recommendations. Now, another commission member said, “we’re sitting here twiddling our thumbs and not moving the ball forward in the right direction.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that he eliminated Collaborative Reform “to respect local control,” but that explanation leaves many observers and advocates unconvinced. Indeed, the goals that Mr. Sessions has outlined — collaborating with local police, avoiding federal management of local authorities, and protecting civil rights — are shared by the Collaborative Reform program. Instead, Ms. Gupta said the decision is “another indication of the full retreat from police reform by Jeff Sessions.'”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that a background document supporting the end of Collaborative Reform said DOJ would shift its focus to “proactive policing,” among other approaches, which likely refers to “broken windows policing” — aggressive enforcement against minor offenses like loitering and turnstile-jumping that has proved ineffective at reducing violent crime and sparked unlawful, abusive, and racially discriminatory police practices like stop-and-frisk in New York City.