Trump could reshape Justice Dept’s focus on civil rights
A Donald Trump administration could radically reshape the Justice Department, particularly civil rights efforts that became one of its most pressing and high-profile priorities over the past eight years. The department, under the Obama administration and the country’s first two black attorneys general, has investigated about two dozen police agencies for civil rights violations and reached courtenforceable consent decrees with many of them. It refused to defend a federal law that banned the recognition of gay marriage. It sued North Carolina over a bathroom bill that it said discriminated against transgender people. And it implemented new profiling limits on federal law-enforcement agencies.
But Trump’s election has stirred concern from civil rights advocates that some of that work could be undone, set aside or at least minimized under a Trump administration. “The Civil Rights Division was just building a head of steam over the last two, three years, and it raises really serious concerns about whether we now lose traction on these issues,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said of a section that former Attorney General Eric Holder called the “crown jewel” of the department.
One overt change could come in the department’s approach toward policing and relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, an issue that’s moved to the public forefront in the last two years. Trump’s talk of a “law and order” approach to crime fighting and his praise for stop-and-frisk police tactics are out of step with a Justice Department that has advocated community policing and decried strategies it considers unconstitutional or discriminatory.
“He talked about things like the war on police, that we need more stop and frisk, that the Black Lives Matter movement has placed police officers at risk, in ways that are really concerning,” said Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department civil rights official who oversaw the investigation into discriminatory practices by the Ferguson, Missouri, police force. The rhetoric resembles that of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who’s expected to be considered for the position of attorney general.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has opened wide-ranging investigations of 23 police departments, including those in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson. It’s enforcing 19 agreements, including 14 court-enforceable consent decrees. While those agreements are unlikely to be reversed, new attorneys could be lax in enforcing them or in requiring meaningful change when additional police departments come under scrutiny.
And different leadership may see less value in some of the community meetings and round-table discussions promoted by Justice Department officials as a way to seek reconciliation between police and minorities. Also subject to change is the department’s overall approach to the thousands of drug prosecutions it brings each year, embodied in a 2013 policy initiative that discouraged prosecutors from seeking harsh prison sentences for nonviolent offenders. A new administration might also seek changes on the national security front, including how terrorism cases are prosecuted and broader surveillance powers - particularly of Muslims.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch acknowledged the prospect for change Thursday, saying in a speech that “some policies and priorities may shift over the span of time or the turn of the electoral wheel.” But she also said all Justice Department employees “are united by a love of country and a commitment to service regardless.” — AP