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Don't Expect Ferguson-Style Police Oversight from Trump's Justice Department 

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click to enlarge From left: Buffalo police step past 75-year-old, Philly police Officer Joe Bologna clubs a protester and Indianapolis police use batons on a woman. - TWITTER SCREEN SHOTS
  • From left: Buffalo police step past 75-year-old, Philly police Officer Joe Bologna clubs a protester and Indianapolis police use batons on a woman.

So far, Trump hasn't gotten to see vicious dogs tear protesters apart on the White House lawn, but he has seen his wish for a more violent police response play out during demonstrations throughout the nation.

In video after video, police officers from New York City to Los Angeles have unloaded tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters, nightsticking their way through nonviolent crowds, using bicycles as battering rams and knocking people to the pavement in head-smacking falls.

When Ferguson turned into the center of unrest, people from around the country, and even the world, flooded into the small middle-class city. But now the protests have sprawled into cities across the country. Instead of traveling, thousands fill their own streets in Denver, Portland, Atlanta, Memphis and Indianapolis. Small towns as disparate as Pinedale, Wyoming, and Alton, Illinois, have hosted demonstrations. Once more of a concept, the saying "Ferguson is everywhere" is playing out in real time.

In Minneapolis, officers were filmed firing paint balls at people standing on their own porch. "Light them up," one of them is heard saying in the footage.

Austin, Texas, police fractured a college student's skull with a bean bag round, and then fired more of the less-lethal rounds at protesters who were trying to carry him to medical help.

In Kansas City, video showed police swarm a man who was heckling them from at least ten feet away, blasting him and others with pepper spray as officers took him into custody.

New York City cops are on film in one clip after another brutalizing protesters. In one scene, a muscle-bound cop shoves a slightly built young woman, who goes flying backward, hitting her head as the officer barely breaks stride marching past. In Indianapolis, an officer grabs a woman's breast while wrestling with her, and when she shakes him off, others move to wale on her legs with batons until she collapses to the ground.

To keep up with the carnage, people have begun assembling sprawling Twitter threads, filled with nothing but police abusing protesters. One of the most widely shared is more than 400 clips long, with new additions every day. Watched in succession, they paint a terrifying picture of a criminal justice system filled with furious officers from dozens of departments in every corner of the United States. A deep anger comes through. The clips tend toward retaliation and punishment.

The police union in Buffalo, New York, was incensed when two officers were suspended for knocking down a frail 75-year-old. In a video recorded by a radio reporter, the man is shoved by an officer and topples backward. He smacks his head and lies motionless, blood pooling as several more officers step past him. The entire 57-member Emergency Response Team resigned from the special unit when two of the officers were suspended. The two were later charged with felony assault, and more than 100 Buffalo cops, firefighters and other supporters cheered them outside the courthouse, the New York Times reported.

The idea that police could be wrong in responding with force to demonstrators has been slow to take hold at departments across the country. Following the lead of a president and attorney general who tear-gassed, bludgeoned and shot people with rubber bullets to clear a path in front of the White House for a photo op, many reject it outright.

"We kept asking them to leave," Huntsville, Alabama, police Chief Mark McMurray told the Alabama Political Reporter, explaining his decision to use tear gas and rubber bullets on people who overstayed their permit for a protest in the city square. "They brought this — this group brought this on themselves."

There is a growing number of people who don't subscribe to the president's idea that police need more force and less oversight — and some of the additions to that list are surprising.

Last week, Sen. Roy Blunt (D-Missouri) sent Attorney General William Barr a letter, asking him to bring back the "pattern or practice" investigations and consent decrees employed in Ferguson.

"In the wake of the recent tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Americans are rightfully demanding justice and accountability," Blunt, who has been a Trump ally, writes. "To that end, I write to urge you to use your authority as the nation's top law enforcement officer to root out misconduct in local police departments and to help restore trust between these departments and the communities they serve."

He notes the past history of using those oversight tools to address systemic problems in troubled police departments, including three in greater St. Louis.

"I have seen firsthand how the federal government can play an important role in addressing failures in the local justice system, rebuilding trust in police departments, and restoring confidence in government institutions," the senator adds.

The letter puts Blunt in the rare position of siding on an issue of law and order with Democratic Congressman Lacy Clay, who issued a joint statement with Congressman Emanuel Cleaver in support of Blunt's request.

A day later, the Rev. Al Sharpton used a portion of his eulogy at George Floyd's memorial service to advocate for federal intervention.

"We got to go back to consent decrees," Sharpton told mourners inside the North Central University sanctuary in Minneapolis.

Consent decrees were introduced as part of the 1994 federal crime bill. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department oversaw fourteen consent decrees. Richard Rosenfeld, the University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist, says they are far from the only means of reforming police departments, but federal intervention can strengthen the efforts of activists and others hoping to hold departments accountable and make changes.

click to enlarge St. Louis County police were a big part of the response in 2014 in Ferguson. - STEVE TRUESELL
  • St. Louis County police were a big part of the response in 2014 in Ferguson.

Rosenfeld has also studied collaborative agreements overseen by the federal Community Oriented Policing Services Office. In the past, police departments have contacted the COPS office on their own to request help. That was the case in St. Louis County where the police department voluntarily underwent a review that resulted in 109 recommendations from 50 findings. The collaborations were a less restrictive — and less expensive — alternative to a full-on consent decree.

"The departments that have engaged in collaborative agreements seem to be quite satisfied," Rosenfeld says.

But even as Jeff Sessions panned consent decrees as government overreach, he also quit the voluntary collaborations. Rosenfeld says restarting those agreements could be the "path of least resistance" for an administration facing calls from both the right and left to reclaim some oversight.

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