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Blunt Wants To Step Up Justice Department Oversight Of Police Departments

Sen. Roy Blunt answers questions in a press conference on Friday about adding apprenticeships to diversify education opportunities in America. 2/21/2020
File photo / Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Roy Blunt answers questions in a February press conference about adding apprenticeships to diversify education opportunities in America.

With protests surging throughout the country decrying police killings of African Americans, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt wants the Department of Justice to resume action that was taken after the Ferguson unrest.

Blunt, R-Missouri, wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr asking the Department of Justice to pursue more “pattern-or-practice” reviews of police departments — and, when necessary, enter into consent decrees with law enforcement agencies. He said such moves would have more impact than any legislation Congress could pass in response to George Floyd’s death.

“In the wake of recent tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Americans are rightfully demanding justice and accountability,” Blunt wrote. “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.”

In an interview, Blunt noted that consent decrees were used in places like Ferguson after Michael Brown’s shooting death in 2014. He also pointed out that the St. Louis County and St. Louis police departments underwent rigorous reviews on department practices and the handling of protests.

“I’m not of the view that there are a lot of legislative solutions here that can deal with the things that happen internally in a department,” Blunt said. “But what we’ve seen in our state is good reason to understand that this can help.”

As Blunt noted in his letter, President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice has placed tighter restrictions on consent decrees in recent years. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a critic of the practice, writing in 2017 that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal agencies.” 

The justice department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Blunt’s letter.

Asked about the Trump administration's prior resistance to consent decrees, Blunt said: “If the question is what can the federal government do to make a difference here, it's an answer. And there aren't very many answers out there.”

“I think in the cases we've seen recently, three of them in a row, that there's got to be some systemic problems that the Department of Justice could help with, and I'm encouraging them to resurrect a tool that would allow them to do that,” Blunt said.

While Blunt cited Ferguson as an example of how consent decrees could be worthwhile, some have questioned if such a move was really effective when the justice department didn’t apply the same federal pressure on other police departments throughout St. Louis County.

Blunt said there’s a unique situation in St. Louis County where so much of the area is policed by relatively small departments.

“It's not going to be solved by looking at one of them, but this may be a situation where you just don't solve every problem all at once,” Blunt said. “I don't think that's the same situation you're looking at in Atlanta or in Louisville or in Minneapolis. But in small departments, I think the bigger concern that I would have is to be sure that the consent decree is helpful, not crippling, so that you don't overwhelm the department with paperwork and reporting.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.