Authors Address How Renewed Federal Scrutiny May Incentivize Police Reform

May 13, 2022

McGuireWoods Richmond counsel Virginia M. Bruner, Chicago office managing partner Christina M. Egan and Raleigh associate Ayana D. Brown wrote a May 6, 2022, article for Law360’s “Perspectives” section, which covers access-to-justice issues.

With the Biden administration well underway, the trio analyzed the landscape for federal investigations of law enforcement agencies. They suggested that in the face of the Department of Justice’s reinvigorated Civil Rights Division — complete with a proposed $3.5 billion budget for civil rights in fiscal year 2023 — police departments are incentivized to be proactive about reform.

During the Trump administration, the Justice Department opened just one investigation into “pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers” that “deprives persons of rights, privileges or immunities secured or protected” by the Constitution or other laws. It concluded without settlement or consent decree. Since April 2021, though, DOJ already has opened four such investigations.

In addition, the authors noted that the drop-off in federal investigations between 2017 and 2021, paired with nationwide protests over police use of force in summer 2020, spurred several states to pass legislation expanding their authority to bring civil charges against law enforcement agencies.

“States and localities need to be proactive in performing internal reviews, and updating their policies and practices before coming under scrutiny,” they wrote. “Even where the DOJ closes an investigation without making a formal finding, that comes at the end of a time- and resource-intensive process.”

In the article, titled “Reinvigorated DOJ Is Strong Incentive for Police Reforms,” Bruner, Egan and Brown made suggestions for reform in five main areas: training requirements, community engagement and transparency, responding to individuals with mental illness, support and wellness services for officers, and best practices for body-worn cameras.

Reviewing and updating their policies, the writers stated, can help law enforcement agencies address misconduct and respond to allegations with a record of transparency, community engagement and reform.