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Rollback of federal police reform program riles advocates

NAACP president Dot Scott addresses the media at a press conference (File/John Gaddy/WCIV)

A South Carolina city sought the federal government's help in rebuilding community trust after the 2015 fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer. Civil rights advocates hoped the resulting comprehensive review of police interactions would be a first step toward meaningful change.

But North Charleston's review and similar efforts in several other cities effectively ended last week when the U.S. Justice Department announced it was rolling back an Obama-era program aimed at improving relations between residents and police.

Instead, the program will now focus on tackling such issues as violent crime and gangs — moving away from federal scrutiny of law enforcement and more closely reflecting the Trump administration's law-and-order agenda.

Civil rights advocates called the move appalling, saying it will hurt minority communities and may keep police from facing consequences for bad behavior.

"I don't know how we are going to handle this going forward," said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston, South Carolina, branch of the NAACP and a member of a citizen advisory commission created after the death of Walter Scott. "We need to have their viable data so that we can say to the city, 'This is what's been happening and this is what we see as a fix.' In the absence of that report, we're back to square one."

At least 15 departments nationwide sought changes through collaborative reform, many after deadly police shootings. Seven, including North Charleston, were still awaiting initial findings.

The program known as "collaborative reform" let cities seek help from the Justice Department on issues they requested, such as use of force. Federal officials would conduct thorough investigations of police departments, recommend changes and monitor progress.

Unlike court-enforceable consent decrees, this collaborative reform was largely optional. Some cities found the reviews helpful in repairing community relations, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions' department said the program had evolved into broader assessments that became adversarial toward police and didn't reduce violence.

Cities can now seek help from DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in areas such as active shooter training, preventing gun violence and reducing gang and drug activity. The office will no longer provide lengthy investigations and public audits.

Kami Chavis, law professor at Wake Forest University, called the change an "antiquated and outdated mindset."

"It could potentially be sending a message to some departments that, 'Hey, we're the federal government, we're going to look the other way, so do what you will,'" Chavis said.

Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department attorney who investigated civil rights violations, said the collaborative review process played an important role and was valuable for departments that sought help.

He said the program worked better for some departments than others. It wouldn't work in a badly broken department like Chicago, he said, and didn't work in Baltimore — which began a collaborative review in 2014 but then folded that process into a federal civil rights investigation after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.

Sessions has vowed to hold individual officers accountable for wrongdoing but has indicated he wants to pull back on such wide-ranging civil rights investigations of police agencies, believing that too much federal scrutiny can hurt officer morale.

Ron Davis, who headed the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services until January, said the collaborative reform process identified problems that needed fixing, and the public reports had recommendations that many other departments followed.

He said the Sessions change "reflects a complete lack of knowledge of what it's like to be a police officer in the United States. ... He's going to retool it to fight crime? He actually retooled it to be a hindrance to crime-fighting."

Davis said San Francisco built a strategic plan around DOJ's recommendations and changed its use-of-force policy. Las Vegas made reforms in use of force, and Philadelphia implemented more than 90 percent of DOJ's recommendations.

Philadelphia's review was launched in 2013 in response to an increase in officer-involved shootings. Marcel Bassett, spokesman for the city's police advisory commission, said DOJ recommendations in 2015 led to the creation of an officer-involved shooting investigation team that makes these cases a higher priority.

But some cities are now in limbo, still awaiting initial reports. The department indicated those cities could opt into the new assistance program and help would be tailored to their needs.

North Charleston Mayor R. Keith Summey said the city would continue to cooperate with the Justice Department and have access to federal resources. He acknowledged "certain details of DOJ's process may change" but didn't elaborate on whether those services would have anything to do with the city's effort to restore relations with police.

St. Anthony, Minnesota, asked for help with police-community relations after an officer killed black motorist Philando Castile in 2016. City Manager Mark Casey said St. Anthony is trying to figure out how to go forward "to continue the valuable work started with the collaborative reform process."

The process has its detractors. Castile's uncle, Clarence Castile, called collaborative reform a "farce" aimed at appeasing the community. Sean Gormley, head of the union that represents St. Anthony police, questioned whether it would help.

"Cops are not above criticism, but we'd rather not wait around months or years for a federal report card to be handed down telling us what we're doing wrong," he said.

In Milwaukee, police Chief Edward Flynn requested a collaborative reform review in November 2015 after federal prosecutors declined to charge a former officer who fatally shot Dontre Hamilton during a confrontation. The city had a draft report, but no final findings.

King Rick, leader of the Black Panthers in Milwaukee, said he hoped the DOJ report would bring about change and give minorities hope.

Instead, having nothing come of the investigation "is just another nail in the coffin for community-police relations," he said.

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