Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Obama White House

In the aftermath of the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016, anti-police brutality protests erupted around the country. The situation grew dire in Dallas when a gunman went on a rampage, killing five police officers. Speaking at the memorial service for those officers, President Barack Obama said this.

When the bullets started flying, the men and women of the Dallas police, they did not flinch and they did not react recklessly. They showed incredible restraint. Helped in some cases by protesters, they evacuated the injured, isolated the shooter, and saved more lives than we will ever know. We mourn fewer people today because of your brave actions…

We know that the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally. They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn. And when anyone, no matter how good their intentions may be, paints all police as biased or bigoted, we undermine those officers we depend on for our safety.

That wasn’t enough for officers like Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation. During a Trump rally last fall, he said that “the Obama administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable.” Kroll went on to say that “the first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around, got rid of the Holder-Loretta Lynch regime and decided to start takin—letting the cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.”

What was it that the Obama administration did that so disturbed officers like Kroll? There are a lot of liberals who claim that Obama didn’t accomplish anything when it came to police reform. The truth is that the federal government doesn’t play a major role in how local police departments are run. To understand what can be done at the national level, you need to know about the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice—which was created in 1957 and tasked with the job of enforcing civil rights laws.

Republican administrations have waged an assault of that kind of enforcement for over forty years. For example, the Bush administration corrupted the Civil Rights Division by putting political appointees in what had previously been jobs held by civil servants. They then prioritized cases related to so-called “religious freedom” and voter fraud.

As the incoming attorney general, Eric Holder had his hands full when it came to refocusing that division on the work it was designed to do. The first thing he and Obama did was to put Tom Perez (the current DNC chair) in charge. The second step was to corral an additional $22 million for the division (an 18 percent increase), which they used to hire lawyers who actually had civil rights backgrounds.

The Civil Rights Division can intervene with a local police department if they document a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against members of a protected class. Over the course of Obama’s tenure, they initiated 15 investigations, more than any other administration in this country’s history. Once the pattern and practice has been established, members of the division negotiate a court-enforced consent decree outlining the reforms the department will enact. That particular provision was part of the 1994 crime bill, which was sponsored by then Senator Joe Biden and signed by President Bill Clinton.

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, passed following the savage 1991 beating of African American motorist Rodney King by four LAPD officers and the catastrophic Los Angeles Riots a year later, gave the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice an extraordinary mandate.

One of the law’s provisions empowered the government to sue police agencies anywhere in the country if they exhibited a “pattern and practice” of using excessive force and/or violating people’s civil rights—and compel them, under what’s known as a “consent decree,” to change those practices.

The first police department to be subjected to federal intervention during Obama’s presidency was New Orleans. After that came Seattle, Newark, Akron, and New Haven. At the time that police shot and killed Tamir Rice in Cleveland, that city was in the midst of negotiating a consent decree. Similar investigations were conducted in Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson.

There are those within law enforcement who objected to that level of accountability. Here is what Jerome Corsi wrote about consent decrees on the website of the Law Enforcement Charitable Foundation.

A consent decree is an agreement or settlement that resolves a dispute between two parties without admission of guilt (in a criminal case) or liability (in a civil case).

Through court-ordered consent decrees, the Obama administration Justice Department (DOJ) has forced dozens of state and local law enforcement officials to plead guilty rather than fight a Justice Department investigation and civil or criminal complaint as well as accept to run their departments under direction of a court-ordered federal monitor…

The radical hard-left of Bill Ayers and Saul Alinsky view police in the United States not as a dedicated force for good willing to risk their lives daily to preserve law and order in communities across the United States, but as an “occupying force” employed by capitalistic white elites hired to attack immigrants and suppress minorities, and apply enforce social control by the discriminatory exercise of deadly force and the power to arrest and imprison.

It didn’t take the Trump administration long to completely upend the process. Here’s what former Attorney General Jeff Sessions did as he was heading out the door.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has drastically limited the ability of federal law enforcement officials to use court-enforced agreements to overhaul local police departments accused of abuses and civil rights violations, the Justice Department announced on Thursday.

In a major last-minute act, Mr. Sessions signed a memorandum on Wednesday before President Trump fired him sharply curtailing the use of so-called consent decrees, court-approved deals between the Justice Department and local governments that create a road map of changes for law enforcement and other institutions.

The move means that the decrees, used aggressively by Obama-era Justice Department officials to fight police abuses, will be more difficult to enact. Mr. Sessions had signaled he would pull back on their use soon after he took office when he ordered a review of the existing agreements, including with police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., enacted amid a national outcry over the deaths of black men at the hands of officers.

The Civil Rights Division is meant to be a backstop when local officials can’t or won’t take up the necessary reforms in police departments. That is precisely what bothers officers like Bob Kroll who do everything possible to limit attempts to hold law enforcement accountable. From the last four presidents, we can also see that Republicans side with Kroll in fighting efforts to hold police departments accountable, while Democrats have supported reform. That is why, in ways that we sometimes fail to notice, elections matter.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.