Wyden, Merkley Reintroduce Legislation to Investigate and Hold Police Officers and Departments Accountable for Discriminatory Practices

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley said today they have joined colleagues to reintroduce legislation that would strengthen the ability of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) and state governments to investigate police departments with a pattern or practice of unconstitutional and discriminatory behavior.

During the Obama administration, 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. Consent decrees are powerful oversight tools that allow DOJ to combat police abuse and force local police departments to adopt meaningful reforms.

That practice came to a complete halt in the Trump administration. The former Attorney General Jeff Sessions severely curtailed DOJ’s ability to deploy these powerful tools by issuing guidance that limited the use of consent decrees. That guidance weakened a Division that already had limited capacity to pursue pattern or practice investigations due to funding constraints. While Attorney General Garland recently announced the rescission of that memorandum, the Trump Administration’s attack on consent decrees demonstrates the need for Congress to provide additional authority and resources for DOJ to conduct these investigations, and to give state governments the funding and tools necessary to act in case DOJ won’t.

“Consent decrees are essential tools to ensure local law enforcement is following the Constitution and not discriminating against anybody in their communities,” Wyden said. “The failure of Donald Trump’s Justice Department to use this proven tool clearly demonstrates the need for this legislation that recognizes these decrees need consistent oversight to maintain accountability for police departments with records of unconstitutional policing.

“We live in a country where police departments often look at some people in a community as clients they are protecting, and others as a threat. That’s unacceptable,” said Merkley. “Every American—regardless of the color of their skin or their zip code—deserves to be treated with respect by law enforcement officials, and to be able to live free from fear of police brutality. If we want to turn that vision into a reality, we need to make sure that police departments that engage in a pattern of discriminatory behavior are held accountable.”

The Enhancing Oversight to End Discrimination in Policing Act of 2021 would:

  • Empower state attorneys general to pursue pattern or practice investigations and cases, 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 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.
  • Encourage DOJ to look beyond traditional law enforcement mechanisms when fashioning remedies with police departments, and consider reform mechanisms like mental health support, civilian oversight bodies, and community-based restorative justice programs.
  • Prevent conflicts of interest in pattern and practice investigations by barring certain officials from being designated to bring federal actions for pattern and practice violations if there would be a conflict of interest.

In addition to Wyden and Merkley, the Enhancing Oversight to End Discrimination in Policing Act introduced by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The legislation is endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.; Demand Progress; National Urban League; National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE); National Action Network;  and the Public Rights Project.

Bill text is here.

A one-page summary of the bill is here.