Would Trump Dismantle the Justice Department Like Bush?

The largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), adores and endorses Trump because of his outspoken support of law and order, his promise to “give the power back to police,” his praise of “stop-and-frisk” and his dismissal of allegations of police brutality as a false narrative. My forthcoming book, Blue Mafia: Police Brutality and Consent Decrees in Ohio, gives a vivid and disturbing portrait of what to expect in terms of police brutality under a Donald Trump presidency. The FOP also adored George W. Bush, who made good on his promise to end US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations of police misconduct, which began during Bill Clinton’s administration. Police and, by extension, the FOP eschew oversight and they detest DOJ oversight most of all. In addition to hamstringing DOJ civil rights enforcement, the Bush administration gave police leaders positions on powerful federal commissions and appointed them as advisors to the White House. If Trump becomes president, police leaders and the FOP will expect the same kind of patronage.

The FOP want police to be autonomous and unquestioned, which is why FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco criticized Trump for wondering aloud if a Tulsa officer involved in a recent shooting “choked.” For police, a consent decree means a loss of autonomy and being subject to oversight, which is why the FOP fights the DOJ every chance they get. When police misconduct in a given agency draws inordinate attention, the DOJ Civil Rights Division (CRD) initiates an investigation, and if a “pattern” is found, the DOJ files a lawsuit. If the city settles, an agreement will be negotiated in which a federal monitor, often a former police chief or federal judge, oversees the reform implementation over a period of years. Hospitals, prisons and local government, even the Republican National Committee, are all subject to federal consent decrees, but police departments were exempt until 1994. Today, more than 20 police departments have consent decrees, yet apart from a handful of academic studies and some media attention, the actual outcomes of consent decrees for local residents have been all but ignored, but Blue Mafia shines a light into the shadowy corners of federal police reform.

Ohio leads the nation the number of DOJ investigations of “patterns” of police misconduct per capita. Nowhere has the DOJ enforcement been more bitterly resisted than Ohio. Blue Mafia provides an firsthand accounts of a dozen criminal and civil rights cases involving allegations of police misconduct in two small towns in Ohio: Steubenville, where the nation’s second consent decree was signed in 1997, and Warren, which today hosts the DOJ’s fourth oldest open investigation, settled in2012.

Fred Harris, Warren’s first African American safety services director, challenged the power of former Police Chief John Mandopoulos, who denied that his officers ever did anything wrong and refused to discipline them:

What they’re going through in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and Ferguson, we went through that here in Warren fourteen years ago. I grew up in a Warren, Ohio where a policeman could do whatever he wanted to you, and there was no recourse. There was no one you could go to.

The Warren Police Department (WPD) under Mandopoulos carried out an aggressive campaign of no-limits proactive policing, grabbing residents by the neck, dragging them out of their cars, beating them, strip-searching them and intimidating them in the press when they spoke out. With nudges from the Bush DOJ on policy, Warren still convulsed with corruption scandals, negative press and civil rights settlements over police brutality until early 2012, when the Obama administration DOJ belatedly brought a “pattern and practice” lawsuit against the WPD, to the relief of local African-American residents.

What emerges in the narrative of Blue Mafia is a Civil Rights Division that operates like a detective agency in the service of special prosecutors whose jurisdiction is moderated by national electoral politics and undermined by city government resistance, police union lawsuits and lobbying as well as the cold, sometimes hostile reception of state and federal courts.

If Trump wins the presidency, the “rigged” DOJ, the “anti-police” CRD and the “anti-voter-suppression” Voting Section will almost certainly be the targets of Trump administration retaliation, dismantling and obstruction, curtailing federal civil rights enforcement. In fulfillment of the campaign promise, the Bush DOJ closed almost three times more police misconduct investigations than during Obama’s presidency, and almost five times more than during the Clinton era. The Obama DOJ opened more investigations and issued twice as many consent decrees than the administrations of Bush or Clinton. Trump is likely to follow Bush’s playbook, and the FOP and its more than 300,000 sworn members would like nothing better.