Justice Department launches police accountability database after GOP opposed reforms

The Justice Department in Washington, Nov. 18, 2022. The U.S. Justice Department has created a database to track records of misconduct by federal law enforcement officers that is aimed at preventing agencies from unknowingly hiring problem officers, officials said on Monday. Dec. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

The Justice Department announced on Dec. 18 that it had launched a national database to track instances of misconduct by law enforcement officers. The system was created following an executive order issued by President Joe Biden in May 2022.

The department said the database will be made available to authorized users, who will be able to access the records during the process of hiring candidates for law enforcement positions. A public report with aggregated and anonymous data on such incidents, which will also include commendations and awards, will be published by the Justice Department.

“Protecting public safety depends on trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. By building trust, we can strengthen public safety and we can more effectively fight crime in our communities,” Biden said in a statement issued on Dec. 18. “The executive order is a measure of what we can do together to heal the very soul of this nation; to address the profound fear and trauma that particularly Black Americans have experienced for generations; and to channel that private pain and public outrage into progress on behalf of all communities.”

The announcement was praised by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“We applaud the DOJ for taking one of the many necessary steps to increase police accountability,” Mara Wiley, the organization’s president and CEO, said in a release.

Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would add new federal regulations designed to make police officers and police departments more accountable to the public in cases of abuse. While in the Senate, Harris was a co-author of the bill, along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and then-Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA).

The legislation would change the federal standard used to prosecute law enforcement officials on charges of abuse, lowering the threshold from the current level of willful criminal intent to knowing or reckless intent.

The bill would limit the use of the qualified immunity doctrine by law enforcement officials accused of abuse. The doctrine prohibits legal action against police unless the alleged victim can show that the conduct in question was unlawful and can prove that the officer’s actions explicitly broke the law. Under current law, it is difficult for individual citizens to sue over abuse unless there is proof — like the precedent of a conviction for actions identical to the offense in question — that the officer has violated “clearly established law.”

The Justice Department would be granted administrative subpoena power, which it would be able to use in investigations into the “pattern or practice” behaviors of local police departments accused of misconduct. “Pattern or practice” refers to repeated acts of discrimination by an institution, even if those actions are not official policy.

The bill also includes directives to create a framework for preventing racial profiling and limits on the use of force and chokeholds.

Similar legislation was passed by the Democratic majority in the House in March 2021. It was not brought up for a vote in the Senate following Republican objections to the bill’s reforms of the qualified immunity process.

Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas was the only House Republican that voted for the bill in 2021. It was opposed by every other Republican who voted, including the entire Republican delegations from Pennsylvania.

Former President Donald Trump, who is the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has frequently voiced support for police brutality and abuses in the past.

In a July 2017 speech to law enforcement officers at Suffolk Community College on Long Island in New York, Trump said that officers should not prevent suspects from hitting their heads on the roofs of police cars as they are arrested.

“Please don’t be too nice,” Trump said. He also claimed that current laws governing brutality were “horrendously stacked” against police and had been “made to protect the criminal.”

In 1989, as a private citizen, Trump had called for the death penalty for five Black and Latino teenagers falsely accused by law enforcement of raping a white woman in Central Park. Trump took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times promoting his position and said, “Bring back our police.”

The teens accused the police of coercing false confessions from them after hours of interrogation. They were later exonerated, but only after four of them had been incarcerated for periods ranging from 6 to 7 years, while the fifth person served 12 years in prison. 

A suspect serving a life sentence for other crimes, who was not affiliated with the teens, later claimed responsibility for the Central Park attack and was positively matched via a DNA test to the crime scene. He was not charged with the 1989 attack because the statute of limitations had expired by the time of his confession in 2002.The Central Park Five had their convictions vacated and later received a $40 million settlement from New York City after filing a civil rights lawsuit. One of the falsely accused men, Yusef Salaam, was elected to the New York City Council in November of this year.