The Department of Justice is complaining no one wanted to talk to Attorney General William Barr about police reform, but Barr is the one who clearly didn't want to talk about it.
Earlier this week, Attorney General William Barr hosted a listening session with civil rights groups to discuss police reform. One problem: only one group showed up.
That's not because the other groups didn't want to talk to Barr about civil rights and police reform. It's because Barr spent months trying to avoid the meeting, and then didn't bother to invite several major civil rights groups once he finally did have it — which prompted almost all of the other organizations to back out in protest.
During his confirmation hearing, Barr had promised Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) that he would convene a meeting to hear from civil rights groups that were concerned about a policy former attorney general Jeff Sessions enacted as he walked out the door in November 2018.
Sessions' memo sharply curtailed the use of consent decrees. Consent decrees are negotiated between the DOJ and local police departments when those departments have a history of ignoring or violating the civil rights of people in their jurisdiction. As part of its commitment to civil rights and police reform, the Obama administration expanded the use of consent decrees.
But Sessions hates consent decrees, and Barr is on record as praising Sessions' stance. In other words, Barr's commitment to police reform seems shaky at best.
Nonetheless, Barr did get around to convening a listening session several months after his confirmation. But that was only after he ignored requests from multiple groups working on police reform. His office never even responded to the activists who had asked for the meeting.
When he did finally set up the meeting, he cherry-picked attendees, again ignoring major groups working on police reform, including Human Rights Watch, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the National Urban League, among others. The groups he did select, including the ACLU and the NAACP, refused to attend in solidarity with the excluded groups.
Derek Johnson, president of the NAACP, described that group's current relationship with the DOJ as "nonexistent" and that to have a conversation about police reform without everyone at the table "really would have undermined the meeting, and it would not have been a meeting with the level of integrity and clarity that we wanted to have."
Under both Sessions and Barr, the DOJ has stepped back from investigating systemic discrimination at the department level. Instead, they prefer to approach police reform by treating individual police as bad actors and charging them individually. That ignores the root causes of police violence and large-scale violations of civil rights, such as what was seen in Ferguson, Missouri.
The DOJ accused the groups of playing "political games" by not attending this meeting. That's hardly the case. Ensuring that all necessary parties are at the table is the way to have a productive dialogue, and neither Barr nor the DOJ have explained why some groups were excluded.
Meanwhile, Barr still hasn't gotten around to fulfilling a different promise he made to Harris in his confirmation hearing over four months ago. She asked for a list of consent decrees the DOJ had withdrawn since the Sessions memo was issued in November 2018.
Somehow, Barr is "still working through" getting her a list, even though it seems like something that should be fairly easy for the Department to put together. The fact that Barr hasn't made this a priority speaks volumes about his lack of commitment to civil rights and police reform.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.