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RELEASE: REPS. KHANNA, COHEN LEAD LETTER TO AG BARR TO SUPPORT CIVIL RIGHTS DIVISION STAFF

July 16, 2020
Press Release

Washington, DC – Today, Representative Ro Khanna (CA-17), member of the House Oversight Committee, and Representative Steve Cohen (TN-09), Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr calling on the Department of Justice to adopt serious internal reforms in an effort to bolster protections for its own civil rights division. Chiefly, the letter calls for the investigation into systemic racial injustices in our law enforcement system, while empowering the career attorneys and staff to do their jobs enforcing federal civil rights laws free from political interference.

“Under Attorney General Barr, the Justice Department has played an unconstitutional role in enabling Trump’s crackdown on peaceful protestors calling for racial justice, as well as blocking comprehensive reforms to our law enforcement system,” said Rep. Ro Khanna. “The many career staff who remain dedicated to enforcing federal civil rights laws deserve the freedom to pursue their work free of any partisan politics. The Justice Department needs to live up to its name. Many in Congress appreciate the bravery of career staff in continuing their work despite the political leadership.”

“The Department of Justice, the Civil Rights Division, and their career attorneys have an important role in upholding our national values,” said Rep. Steve Cohen. “It’s time for these agencies’ political leadership to restore their traditional functions and empower their public servants to impartially pursue justice. Our nation’s civil rights laws must be enforced diligently, thoughtfully, and without political interference.”

Despite their nationwide success at reining in and reforming dysfunctional departments, Barr’s Department of Justice has ceased conducting “pattern or practice” investigations to examine systemic problems in police departments.

Pattern or practice investigations are civil, not criminal, investigations, and they aim to address systemic abuses, not individual officers. They allow the federal government to sue any law enforcement entity that engages in “a pattern or practice of conduct … that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

These federal investigations commonly result in a settlement with a consent decree—a court order negotiated between federal and state or local officials that the Justice Department uses to pressure police departments with a history of systemic civil rights abuses. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has a history of making significant efforts to address bias and abuse in policing, with two dozen consent decrees and other agreements in the past decade that establish best practices for policing our communities.

Research has consistently demonstrated that consent decrees, alongside court appointed monitoring, can reduce the number of police-related killings. Therefore, the Khanna-Cohen letter calls on the Department of Justice to reverse course and resume “pattern or practice” investigations.

However, resuming ‘pattern or practice’ investigations and consent decrees at the Department of Justice will require that the Department and the Division leadership empower the career attorneys and staff to perform this work without political interference.

Cosigners: Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), André Carson (IN-07), David Cicilline (RI-01), William Lacy Clay (MO-01), Peter DeFazio (OR-04), Suzan DelBene (WA01), Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11), Alcee Hastings (FL-20), Alan Lowenthal (CA-47), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ-06), Bobby Rush (IL-01), Jan Schakowsky (IL-09), Terri Sewell (AL-07), Jackie Speier (CA-14), Bennie Thompson (MS-02), Juan Vargas (CA-51), Nydia Velázquez (NY-07)

The full text of the letter is available here.

 

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About the Office

Congressman Khanna represents the 17th District of California, which covers communities in Silicon Valley. Visit his website at khanna.house.gov. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @RepRoKhanna.

 

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The Honorable William P. Barr 
Attorney General

The Honorable Eric S. Drieband
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

The Staff at the U.S. Department of Justice

U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20530

Dear Attorney General Barr, Assistant Attorney General Dreiband, and the civil servants of the U.S. Department of Justice,

We write to recognize the efforts of the staff at the Department of Justice and the Civil Rights Division who have dedicated their careers to upholding the U.S. Constitution and enforcing federal civil rights laws, through multiple Administrations.  The Division is tasked with enforcing statutes designed to uphold our national values of equality, opportunity, and freedom. For generations, civil servants in the Department and Division have worked diligently--case by case--to make the United States the more perfect union we envision.  As a nation, we are privileged that so many talented civil servants have dedicated their careers to this area of the law.  We implore the Department and Division leadership to restore these agencies’ traditional functions and empower the career attorneys and staff to perform this work, thoughtfully, strategically, and without political interference. 

This moment -- the confluence of an international pandemic, a growing racial justice movement, and an economic calamity that has further exacerbated income, wealth, and racial inequalities—underscores the need for a strong and independent Civil Rights Division.  These forces have already begun to transform our country, and the Department and Division have important roles to ensure that what emerges from these unprecedented times is a more just and equitable nation. 

At risk to their own health, millions of Americans have taken to the streets calling for racial justice and comprehensive reforms to our law enforcement system.  The Department of Justice and the Civil Rights Division can be part of the solution.  The Division has a history of making significant efforts to address bias and abuse in policing, with two dozen consent decrees and other agreements in the past decade that establish best practices for policing our communities.

It is unconscionable that the Department’s response to the killing of George Floyd and widespread reports of disproportionate use of force against demonstrators across the country has made no mention of the need for systemic reform nor raised any concerns about police violence against protesters. Worse, the Department’s own response to the demonstrations here in Washington, D.C., violate the standards that the Civil Rights Division has established for local police departments.

Those standards, established in consent decrees with police departments across the country, include the requirement of law enforcement officers to be properly and clearly identified to the public, training for police officers prior to being deployed at public demonstrations, and policing practices consistent with the First Amendment. Yet, inexplicably the Attorney General deployed unidentified officers and brought in personnel from the Bureau of Prisons who apparently have no training or experience with public demonstrations.  This was a moment for the Community Relations Service to work with communities across the country to deescalate and the Civil Rights Division to demonstrate that the American people will seek justice for George Floyd and all those that have faced similar circumstances.  Instead, the Attorney General personally directed that individuals—including children and clergy—peacefully exercising their fundamental right to assemble and protest, be forcibly removed, without warning, in advance of the President’s photo-op.

We urge the leadership of the Department and Division to reverse course and adopt major reforms to the Department and the Division.  One place to start would be to resume pattern and practice police abuse investigations and enforcement actions.  During the Trump administration, there has not been a single DOJ consent decree with a police department. Restarting pattern and practice abuse investigations would be important for three reasons:

  • First, it would demonstrate to the American people that the Department and Division’s leadership understands that George Floyd’s murder is one of countless examples of the systemic racial injustices that corrode our law enforcement system, in which black Americans are disproportionately more likely to be killed at the hands of law enforcement than white Americans. 
  • Second, it would demonstrate that the federal government will live up to its promises in the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution.  Even when states may fail, the federal government will ensure the rights, due process, and equality of all Americans. 
  • Third and most importantly, these cases can prevent further loss of life.  A common outcome is a settlement with a consent decree that requires agencies to reform their practices, just as with the Ferguson, Missouri consent decree.  Research has demonstrated that consent decrees, alongside court appointed monitoring, can reduce the number of police-related killings, which is the most basic goal.  

We have deep respect for the Department and the public servants who have dedicated themselves and their careers to justice.  We do not believe the agency’s recent actions reflect the sincere commitment of so many of the Department’s career staff, especially the Civil Rights Division, to defending the rights of all Americans and ending abuse by police, nor should they reflect the political leadership’s aspirations for the Department and Division. The Attorney General’s actions dishonor the history of these institutions and their dedicated public servants who continue to seek to enforce the law during times of increasing politicization amidst unprecedented challenges.

Within its ranks, the Department of Justice has deep expertise in how to protect the civil rights of all Americans and enforce the Constitution. The Department leadership must not stand in the way of those employees dedicated to upholding the law and the Constitution.

Sincerely,

Ro Khanna

Steve Cohen