Justice Department declines to rule out civil rights probe of Minneapolis police department

After completing a pattern or practice investigation, the Justice Department enters talks with the police department and usually negotiates a court order mandating reforms. Civil rights activists argue the court orders are powerful tools for forcing departments to make changes. But many Republicans argue they can be too burdensome for departments and can damage officer morale.

In a letter responding to Klobuchar, the DOJ’s head of legislative affairs indicated the department is considering launching such a probe into the Minneapolis police department. The letter noted that DOJ has the authority to investigate “systemic violations of the Constitution” or of the law by police forces.

“Where an investigation reveals a pattern or practice of such misconduct, the Section may initiate a civil action in the name of the United States against state or local officials and seek appropriate injunctive relief,” wrote Stephen Boyd, DOJ’s legislative affairs chief. “We will carefully consider the evidence in this case, as well as any additional information that comes to our attention, regarding your request for a civil pattern or practice investigation.”

The letter did not earn any adulation from Klobuchar.

“It’s been 23 days since George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), and yet the DOJ has still not committed to investigate the patterns and practices of racially discriminatory policing at the MPD,” she said in a statement to POLITICO. “Any insinuation that there is not enough evidence to justify an immediate pattern and practice investigation is willfully ignoring the facts.”

And the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, recently joined more than 200 groups to call on Barr to open a pattern or practice investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department. Vanita Gupta, the Leadership Conference’s president and CEO and the head DOJ’s Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration, said there is ample evidence now to open such a probe.

“It is imperative for the Department of Justice to open a pattern or practice investigation into the Minneapolis police department,” she said in a statement to POLITICO. “Both Attorneys General Session and Barr abdicated their responsibilities in this area and failed to use this key, strategic tool to address systemic constitutional violations by law enforcement agencies.”

The DOJ, meanwhile, remains noncommittal––but hasn’t ruled out such a move.

Asked about whether the Justice Department should launch a pattern and practice probe into the Minneapolis police department during a June 7 interview with CBS News, Barr said he didn’t see it as “warranted,” citing investigations underway by the state of Minnesota.

Somewhat ambiguously, however, he added: “We still have to look into what kinds of use of force policies are used in that department, what the training has been and things like that. That’s not something we can do overnight.”

It’s not clear whether Barr was referring to DOJ specifically conducting such an inquiry, or the justice system more generally.

“The department considers a number of factors in determining the appropriate remedy to resolve a pattern or practice of constitutional violations by a law enforcement agency,” a DOJ official told POLITICO. “It is the mission of the Justice Department to ‘ensure public safety,’ and we will continue to encourage the proven, constitutional, and proactive policing required to keep American neighborhoods safe from violent crime.”

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