Attorney General Becerra Urges Congress to Expand Authority of State Attorneys General Under Federal Law to Conduct Police Department Investigations

Friday, June 5, 2020
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Highlights pattern-or-practice work already being done in California to address needed policing reforms

SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra today sent a letter — in support of a broader effort by state attorneys general — urging Congress to expand the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to give state attorneys general clear statutory authority under federal law to investigate and resolve patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing. In the absence of federal leadership by the U.S. Department of Justice (US DOJ), expanding the act — particularly for states where attorneys general may have less authority to take on these efforts — is critical. Congress originally enacted the measure in response to the severe beating of Rodney King by police officers in Los Angeles in 1991. While California law already authorizes the California Department of Justice to conduct pattern-or-practice investigations, Attorney General Becerra urges Congress to explicitly authorize state attorneys general in all 50 states to have the authority to take on these crucial efforts in their respective jurisdictions across the country.

“When our communities speak up about their pain, we in law enforcement have to listen and take action,” said Attorney General Becerra. “That's why it’s critical that all state attorneys general across the country have clear, explicit authority to fight back against patterns of police misconduct when they occur. George Floyd’s death didn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s a symptom of the collective failing of our criminal justice system to adequately stand up for people of color. We have to do better. Our children deserve to live in a country where the color of their skin doesn’t determine the frontier of their possibilities. At the California Department of Justice, we’re committed to listening and stepping up to do our part."

Once again, our nation has been called to reckon with police brutality against black people in this country and the systemic failures that cause and allow this misconduct to perpetuate. While we have only recently learned the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the stories of their tragic deaths are all too familiar. These incidents are not isolated. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, while people of color make up fewer than 38 percent of the United States’ population, they make up almost 63 percent of unarmed people killed by police. As instances of police misconduct continue to occur, state attorneys general across the country must have effective tools to conduct robust investigations into potential police misconduct to ensure accountability. The California Department of Justice has engaged in a wide variety of these cases in just the past few years, reflecting the breadth of the need for holistic reform in our systems of law enforcement. For instance, in addition to other ongoing work related to police reform efforts, the California Department of Justice is currently engaged in in-depth pattern-or-practice reviews of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department.

Unfortunately, the federal government has abdicated its role and left state and local authorities to largely fend for themselves. US DOJ has express authority to investigate and resolve patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing by local police departments. Until this current administration, the Civil Rights Division of US DOJ conducted comprehensive investigations into police misconduct throughout the country and utilized consent decrees to protect the civil and constitutional rights of the people in those communities. Between 1994 and January 2017, US DOJ initiated 69 pattern-or-practice investigations — resulting in 40 court-enforceable consent decrees. Since 2017, US DOJ has largely curtailed the ability of federal law enforcement to use court-enforced agreements to reform local police departments accused of abuses. US DOJ also has abandoned collaborative police reform efforts overseen by the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. This shift has led to a precipitous decline in US DOJ’s work to reform police misconduct. Since January 2017, US DOJ has initiated zero pattern-or-practice investigations into police conduct and has not entered any consent decrees. As a result of the Trump Administration abandoning such police reform efforts, the California Department of Justice stepped in at the request of the City of San Francisco and the San Francisco Police Department to provide independent oversight of the police department’s collaborative reform efforts.

Attorney General Becerra is committed to working to enhance public trust between law enforcement and the communities we strive to protect. Earlier this year, Attorney General Becerra announced an independent review of the Los Angeles Police Department’s policies and utilization of the CalGang system in light of reports of misconduct. Last year, the Attorney General worked collaboratively with the Sacramento Police Department to issue a report and make recommendations on the department’s use of force policies, training, and practices. The Attorney General also reached a settlement with the Stockton Unified School District and its police department to address system-wide violations of the civil rights of minority students and students with disabilities. In addition, the California Department of Justice recently launched a dashboard to give researchers, legislators, journalists, and all members of the public greater access to data reported under the Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015. This information is in addition to the annual criminal justice statistics released by the California Department of Justice on OpenJustice, a data-driven initiative that embraces transparency to strengthen trust, enhance government accountability, and improve public policy in the criminal justice system.

A copy of the letter is available here.

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