Community and faith leaders on Wednesday called on the Trump administration to open a civil rights investigation into the Fort Worth Police Department in the wake of a white officer’s fatal shooting of a black woman in her home, saying the goal should be a police reform plan enforced by a federal judge.
But it’s unclear if that objective is realistic given the disfavor, even hostility, the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump has shown toward such court-supervised plans, called consent decrees, which agency policymakers say too often tie the hands of officers while imposing burdensome costs.
Pastor Kyev Tatum, among those who gathered at a news conference in Fort Worth to announce their request, said attempts to get the city to end the kind of abuses that contributed to the killing of Atatiana Jefferson Saturday hadn’t worked. No mechanism exists to hold city officials accountable, he said.
“It’s time for somebody else to take control,” Tatum said.
Tatum and others sent a letter to the Justice Department asking it to determine whether there has been “a continued pattern and practice of using excessive force” against minorities in Fort Worth.
Officer Aaron Dean, 34, resigned and was arrested Monday for firing a single bullet through a windowpane while investigating a neighbor’s report about the front door being open at Jefferson’s home.
“The only alternative to prevent future unlawful killings,” the coalition letter said, “is to place the city under a federal consent decree.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price Wednesday reiterated the city’s commitment to addressing concerns. She said in a statement, “My focus remains on healing this city and pushing forward to see that we make progress.”
She said actions currently underway include engaging national experts to review procedures within the police department, with an independent third-party panel being on board by Nov. 19. She said they’ll continue to implement recommendations from a race and culture task force, including hiring an independent police monitor and diversity officer.
The Department of Justice conducted civil rights investigations of nearly 70 police departments between 1994, when Congress authorized them, and the end of President Barack Obama’s administration. But the agency’s current policy, established by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pulled back on previous administrations’ embrace of long-lasting, in-depth federal investigations of police followed by reform plans supervised by federal judges.
Hours before he resigned as attorney general in November 2018, Sessions signed a memo providing guidance to staff that portrayed consent decrees as having been too sweeping, too open-ended and too much of a strain on city budgets. The guidance doesn’t explicitly rule out consent decrees but sharply limits situations in which the Justice Department would pursue them.
“The Justice Department have done very, very few investigations (under Trump),” said Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department attorney. “I can’t say for sure it won’t open an investigation against Fort Worth — but it seems unlikely.”
Communities bent on overhauling their police forces through court-monitored plans don’t necessarily have to involve the Justice Department.
Chicago, which has had a long reputation for police brutality against minorities, is a case in point.
After more than a yearlong investigation, a damning report released in the waning days of the Obama administration in January 2017 found that deep-rooted civil rights abuses permeated Chicago’s more than 13,000-member force.
Over several months, then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration negotiated a draft plan with Trump’s Department of Justice that foresaw no court role. Community groups and civil rights leaders called the plan toothless.
Amid that criticism, then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan — with Emanuel’s agreement — sued the city in 2017 to ensure a judge would have oversight. The move cut the Justice Department out of the process.
That didn’t stop the Trump administration from seeking to scuttle the deal. The Justice Department filed a court document opposing the plan, saying it would deprive officers of flexibility to do their jobs right. A judge nonetheless approved the agreement.
The option of bypassing the Justice Department may not be politically viable for Fort Worth, said Smith. Illinois’ attorney general, a Democrat, was sympathetic to the idea of a consent decree, but the GOP attorney general in Texas most likely would not be, he said.
Community groups could attempt to sue with the aim of getting the city into federal court. But they would have a harder time establishing that they have legal standing to sue a city, Smith said.