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Justice Dept. Probe Into Minneapolis Police 'Not Meant To Fix Policing'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Even as three guilty verdicts arrived last week for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, activists and public officials alike have warned that there is still work to do, in part because of the city's own data. For example, Blacks and East Africans account for only about 20% of the city's total population, yet they accounted for 78% of police searches that started as stops for moving or equipment violations. That's according to Minneapolis Police Department data compiled by Hennepin County public defender Jay Wong and verified by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It's the kind of behavior that will soon be under federal scrutiny. This past Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it will launch an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department looking for patterns or practice of discriminatory policing.

We wanted to know more about what this entails, so we called Christy Lopez. From 2010 to 2017, Christy Lopez led the so-called pattern-or-practice investigations with the Department of Justice. She now teaches law at Georgetown University, where she co-directs their innovative policing program. And she's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHRISTY LOPEZ: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So as we mentioned, the Department of Justice announced a probe of the Minneapolis Police Department. Having led these investigations, can you just briefly explain what that will entail?

LOPEZ: Yeah. There's really three components to the investigation. The first is the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division will go in with experts and attorneys who have been doing this work to really do a top-to-bottom investigation, not only looking at the nature of the violations of people's rights but what caused them. And then they will release a findings report that will really tell the world what they found. And then they will likely, if they found a problem, seek to negotiate a consent decree, which is really a plan to correct whatever problems that they found.

MARTIN: You know, there are just various viewpoints of how effective these consent decrees are, as I'm sure you know - activists, particularly, it has to be said, on the left who say they just don't go far enough to enact substantial change, and then just this week, police groups say that they are actually going to push back against Attorney General Merrick Garland and his probe into the Minneapolis Police Department. So as somebody who saw how these departments operate, how these consent decrees work, what is your sense of this, particularly now that you're on the outside looking in?

LOPEZ: I really am a little concerned about the pushback on - from law enforcement, especially now at this moment. This idea that we don't need that kind of oversight from the federal government to make sure that police departments are not violating people's rights routinely seems a little out of step with where we need to be going.

I think the critique on the left I understand a little bit more, but I think that what we need to do is keep in mind that these consent decrees are not meant to fix policing. And that's in part because they're really focused on ensuring that police are acting lawfully. And unfortunately, there's a lot of policing that is really harmful that's perfectly lawful.

MARTIN: I'm not asking you to prejudge the Minneapolis investigation, but I did want to go over some of the data again and just ask you what a investigation might reveal. For example, Black and East African drivers are 20% of the population, but they're 78% of the searches that started as stops. And then whites make up 12% of the searches during the same types of stops during that same timeframe. But it turns out for Black and East African drivers, only 26% of those searches resulted in arrest, compared with 41% of whites.

So that would suggest that even though Black and East African drivers were stopped the majority of the time, there seemed to be less reason, just based on the department's own data. How would an investigation - if it were to review that, what kinds of things would you investigate?

LOPEZ: Well, there's a couple of things you're going to be looking at. And to be fair to Minneapolis, those numbers are consistent with what we see almost everywhere. Almost everywhere, you see people of color searched more than white people, and then you find less contraband. And what we often call the hit rates are lower for people of color than white people. And what that seems to suggest - right? - is that people who are Black or Latino are being stopped because they are Black or Latino, not because they're behaving suspiciously.

The consent decrees in the past have been less successful at reducing race disparities than they have at reducing the numbers of stops and searches overall. And that's because these disparities are really entrenched in our broader culture and probably need to be addressed more broadly than just via policing.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to ask what that would look like. But I also want to ask if there are aspects of past investigations, whether you consider them failures or successes, that you think that the department could learn from as they go forward.

LOPEZ: The investigations in the past, DOJ has always been learning from them, and I'm sure they've been learning over these past four years and when they've been enforcing the degrees that have been in place, even though they've only brought one new investigation. There's definitely indications that these investigations have been successful, the consent decrees have been successful. You do see lower uses of force. You do see lower rates of unlawful arrest. Complaints tend to go down over time.

I think the challenge now is trying to ensure that those changes in policing are disseminated more broadly and adopted more broadly so that we can effect policing more broadly. And I think the Department of Justice is going to need to find a way to address these deeper root causes of policing harm that really are outside of its technical authority to bring these cases.

MARTIN: What has been the biggest factor in your thinking about this? You've been doing this for a long time. You served at DOJ from 1995 to 2000, then again from 2010 to 2017. What do you think has most influenced your thinking about what would make the most difference?

LOPEZ: You know, it really was spending a lot of time on ride-alongs in cities across the country, talking with community members and realizing the change that can be achieved through these federal consent decrees is, in my view, incredibly important but limited and realizing how much more work we need to do. You know, that's really been the evolution of my thinking and why I've felt so strongly about the need to continue with these investigations but also work on changing our approach to public safety more fundamentally.

MARTIN: So, you know, defund the police has become one of those sort of political buzzwords. It means different things to different people. How do you think about that? What do you think about this move to defund the police?

LOPEZ: Well, I think fundamentally, it reflects the understanding that we've come to over-rely on policing to meet our public safety needs. But I think that one misapprehension people have about it, or at least misapplication of it, is trying to use cutting budgets as the driver for policy change. And I think that that can have unintended consequences. I've definitely seen places, police departments, where the - their budgets were slashed, and there were fewer officers, but those fewer number of officers caused more harm than ever before. So I definitely prefer to think about it in terms of, we need to think about what we want policing to look like once we don't over-rely on policing. And once we've determined what we want that more narrow, targeted view of policing to be, then we let that drive what the budget should be.

MARTIN: That was Christy Lopez. During the Obama administration, she helped lead the Department of Justice's civil rights investigations into police departments. And she now teaches law at Georgetown University and heads a group working on innovative policing strategies there.

Christy Lopez, thank you so much for joining us.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.