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President-elect Joe Biden will use the Justice Department (DOJ) to crack down on police departments allegedly engaged in "systemic misconduct" in part by the use of consent decrees — a tool used regularly by the Obama administration but largely scrapped under President Trump.
Biden’s campaign website promises that he will "expand and use the power of the U.S. Justice Department to address systemic misconduct in police departments and prosecutor’s offices."
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Specifically, it notes that the Obama administration used both "pattern or practice" investigations and consent decrees to address misconduct in places like Ferguson, Mo. – which erupted in riots and violence after the death of Michael Brown in 2014.
DOJ consent decrees were set up after the 1992 Rodney King riots in L.A. and allow the DOJ’s civil rights division to sue police forces found to have a pattern and practice of violating rights.
Under former President Barack Obama and his two attorney generals, Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder, nearly two dozen investigations were launched against various law enforcement agencies.
The Trump administration, which took a more skeptical approach to allegations of systemic racism in police departments, reduced the use of consent decrees dramatically — including by putting a limit on the number of decrees that can be out at one time.
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"One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees," then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, who went on to become President Trump’s first attorney general, said in 2008. "Consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end-run around the democratic process."
The Washington Post, which reported this week on how Biden intends to return to the Obama method of "policing the police," reports that 25 "pattern or practice" investigations were opened in the Obama-era compared to just one under Trump.
But as the death of George Floyd over the summer became a rallying cry for activists and Democrats against what they claim is systemic racism in police departments, Biden has promised to again return to that practice.
"Under the Biden Administration, the Justice Department will again use its authority to root out unconstitutional or unlawful policing," Biden's campaign website says. "The Biden administration will reverse the limitations put in place under President Trump, and Biden will appoint Justice Department leadership who will prioritize the role of using pattern-or-practice investigations to strengthen our justice system."
"The Department of Justice must have subpoena power for pattern or practice investigations into systemic misconduct by police departments and force these departments to reform," Biden wrote in a USA Today op-ed in June.
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The Post also reports that Biden is expected to revive the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which used a "collaborative reform" program under Obama but was ended under Trump.
Biden has sidestepped more radical calls from his own party to "defund the police" and has instead pledged to increase police budgets, but tied to reforms related to diversity and "community policing."
However, Biden has indicated he may get more aggressive on police reform after next week’s Jan. 5 Senate runoffs in Georgia — two races that will decide what party holds the Senate.
"I also don’t think we should get too far ahead ourselves on dealing with police reform in that, because they’ve already labeled us as being ‘defund the police’ anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing — which I promise you, will occur. Promise you," Biden said in leaked audio to civil rights leaders first obtained by The Intercept.
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"That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable," Biden added. "We’re talking about giving them money to do the right things."
Biden told the civil rights leaders "to think about how much do we push between now and Jan. 5" regarding police reform. At the same time, the president-elect pledged to form a "full-blown commission" to examine the issue.
Fox News' Perry Chiaramonte contributed to this report.
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