Wyden, Merkley Co-sponsor Legislation to Investigate and Hold Police Officers and Departments Accountable for Discriminatory Practices

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today announced they are co-sponsoring legislation that would strengthen the federal and state governments’ ability to investigate police departments with a pattern or practice of unconstitutional and discriminatory behavior.

“Real change to uproot systemic racism in police departments demands a firm commitment to investigations that carry real accountability for law enforcement agencies when they violate civil rights,” Wyden said. “This legislation would take a significant step forward toward re-establishing the core principle that the federal government supports local efforts to stop police misconduct and discrimination.”

“A badge can’t be a free pass to commit crimes with impunity,” said Merkley. “The American people deserve a police force that works for everyone—regardless of the color of someone’s skin—and that means we need to make it easier to hold police departments accountable for their misconduct. Thorough investigations are critical to that effort, and that’s why I’m urging my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to stand up against discrimination by supporting this legislation.”

During the Obama administration, the Department of Justice (DOJ) used its authority to investigate police departments with a track record of unconstitutional policing and hold them accountable by entering into consent decrees – court-monitored settlements mandating that police departments adopt specific reforms. That practice came to a complete halt in the Trump administration. Trump’s DOJ hasn’t entered into a single consent decree. Even worse, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on his final day in office, issued guidance limiting DOJ’s use of consent decrees. 

While Trump’s DOJ has turned its back on pattern or practice investigations, state Attorneys Generals have urged Congress to clarify their authority to investigate local law enforcement agencies with a pattern of abuse. The Enhancing Oversight to End Discrimination in Policing Act would rescind the Sessions guidance, enhance the federal government’s ability to pursue pattern or practice investigations, and empower state Attorneys Generals to pursue pattern or practice investigations and give them the robust funding they need to do so. 

In addition to Wyden and Merkley, other co-sponsors of the bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawai’i) are U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn,), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

The Enhancing Oversight to End Discrimination in Policing Act would: 

  • Rescind the November 2018 memorandum issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which placed limits on DOJ’s ability to enter into consent decrees to reform police departments with a history of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices.
  • Empower state Attorneys General to pursue pattern or practice investigations, providing a critical backstop if DOJ fails to act, and create a grant program to assist states in pursuing investigations and consent decrees.
  • Triple funding for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, and dedicate $100 million per year for the next 10 years to the Division to pursue these investigations into police departments with a history of engaging in unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices.

The legislation is endorsed by the National Urban League, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), National Action Network, Demand Progress, and the Public Rights Project.

Text of the Enhancing Oversight to End Discrimination in Policing Act is here. A one-page summary of the bill is here.

A web version of this release is here.

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