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Jeff Sessions halted police reforms, so California is going it alone

Trump's Department of Justice is pulling out of police reform program COPS, but states are stepping into the void.

by Tess Owen
Feb 6 2018, 4:45pm

The state of California is stepping in to oversee the police reform process of San Francisco’s troubled police department, picking up where the feds left off when the Trump administration ended an Obama-era community policing program last September.

It's a sign that momentum for police reform continues on a local and state level, with or without help from the federal government.

“Simply because the federal government decided to abandon ship does not mean we were going to let the ball drop,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at a press conference Monday. The agreement with SFPD, Becerra continued, “serves as a prime example of state and local authorities collaborating in the absence of help from Washington.”

The SFPD was one of 15 law enforcement agencies left high and dry when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to shake up the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) by allocating resources toward fighting crime instead of police reform.

Prior to that announcement, local police departments could solicit a federal review from COPS, and resources to implement recommended reforms. This was a way to rebuild trust in communities, and mitigate possible legal intervention by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, which was what happened in cities like Baltimore and Chicago.

Read more: Police shoot far more people than anyone realized, a VICE News investigation reveals

The officer-involved killing of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man in 2015, and a racist and homophobic officer texting scandal, fuelled distrust of the SFPD, and in response, former San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who died suddenly in December, asked for support from the DOJ.

A scathing 432-page report released in Oct. 2016 by the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services identified “implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups” by the SFPD, and that people of color were disproportionately killed by police. The report also included 272 recommendations that the SFPD could implement.

California was able to take matters into its own hands because it had a finished report and recommendations to work with. But this isn’t the case for about seven or eight other cities which were still undergoing review by COPS when Sessions axed the program, said Ron Davis, former director of COPS, a key player in the Obama Administration’s police reform efforts, and a retired police chief.

“San Francisco was able to pick up the ball and continue working with the state AG because they had a published report showing them what their deficiencies were,” said Davis. Some of the cities which never got their report includes places where videos of officer-involved fatal shootings inflamed community tensions, such as in North Charleston, where former officer Michael Slager killed Walter Scott, or St Anthony, Minnesota, where former officer Jeronimo Yanez killed Philando Castile.

California’s actions are rare but not unprecedented. Last August, Illinois’ attorney general filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago seeking a consent decree after the Trump Administration failed to pursue one, despite the damning DOJ report revealing rampant civil rights violations. Davis believes that, given the resources, states will continue to pursue police reform, and that the latest development in California proves that point further.

“The first example of leadership at the state level that’s necessary to fill the gap left by this DOJ was Illinois’ AG,” said Davis. “I think the precedent has already been set.”

Cover: Police block streets as protesters gathered at Alamo Square in San Francisco, California on August 26, 2017. (Photo: AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images)