The Justice Department’s top watchdog said Wednesday that the erosion of public confidence in law enforcement after the high-profile deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers is one of “the most pressing challenges” facing federal law enforcement.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz, in a letter to Attorney General William Barr, also chided the Trump administration for cutting back on police oversight. And he wrote that strengthening public confidence in law enforcement and protecting civil liberties would “require appropriate and swift action” from the Justice Department.
His report, which mentions two Black Americans killed by police this year as well as a Black man slain by a white man while jogging in Georgia, calls for “urgent” action to improve community trust in law enforcement.
“One of the most pressing challenges facing the Department of Justice ... in the wake of nationwide protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among other incidents, is how it can most effectively work to strengthen public confidence in law enforcement and protect individuals’ civil liberties,” the report says.
Floyd, who was in handcuffs, died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for several minutes in late May, a killing that sparked a wave of nationwide protests. Taylor was fatally shot in her apartment in March during a botched police raid in Louisville, Kentucky, and Arbery was gunned down in February after a father and son began following him in a truck as he jogged through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia.
Horowitz notes that the Justice Department “has numerous tools at its disposal to safeguard individual rights and promote constitutional policing practices at the state and local levels.” But he also says that the department, under President Donald Trump, has significantly curtailed its police oversight work, writing that it “has not fully effectuated the tools” at its disposal and, “in some cases, has cut back” on their use.
“We believe that among the most significant challenges facing the department is responding to the potential erosion of confidence in law enforcement ... as well as embracing its leadership role and using all available tools to address these issues to the fullest extent practicable,” the report says.
Horowitz’s report points out that this “is not a new challenge” for the DOJ, saying it was an issue in a similar 2015 report, which followed the “police killings of unarmed African Americans” in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, in 2014 that reignited the Black Lives Matter movement.
The new report, citing a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, notes that majorities of Americans, both Black and white, believe that Black Americans are treated less fairly than whites by police and the criminal justice system.
The report discusses Trump’s Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which a federal judge ruled had violated federal law by excluding the voices of civil rights advocates and anyone besides law enforcement officials. A prosecutor on one of the commission’s working groups quit, saying he believed the commission was “intent on providing cover for a predetermined agenda that ignores the lessons of the past” and would “only widen the divisions in our nation.” The judge’s finding, the inspector general’s report states, “may undermine public confidence in the commission’s work.”
Horowitz’s office continues to investigate the Justice Department’s response to unrest in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, this year by people protesting systematic racism. His report notes that federal law enforcement officials in Washington “did not wear badges or other identifying information and, in some instances, allegedly refused to identify themselves when asked.”
The report states that such actions “raised concerns about individuals’ ability to hold unidentified law enforcement officers accountable for potential civil rights violations.”
“The department must assure the public that its law enforcement components can be held accountable for actions they take while seeking to enforce the law,” the report says.
A spokeswoman for Barr did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the watchdog’s findings and recommendations.
The report comes as President-elect Joe Biden’s administration begins to examine the work necessary to overhaul the Justice Department ― particularly the Civil Rights Division, which was undercut during the Trump administration. The police practices group that operates as part of the division has been cut in half since former President Barack Obama left office, and the Trump administration effectively killed a collaborative reform initiative that gave local police departments a way to voluntarily implement reforms.