WASHINGTON — The Justice Department will review how it enforces prohibitions on racial discrimination by law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding, according to a department memo, a move that could broaden the Biden administration’s efforts to combat systemic racism in policing, prisons and courts.
While the review concerns law enforcement funding, it could affect how the federal government oversees grant recipients in transportation, health care, education and other sectors that receive federal money.
The issue of racial discrimination in policing came to a head last year after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, who died when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, setting off months of nationwide protests.
The Biden Justice Department has made civil rights enforcement a priority, opening investigations into allegations of systemic racial discrimination by police forces in Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., and Phoenix as well as the state prisons in Georgia. It has placed some troubled law enforcement organizations under consent decrees, a court-overseen overhaul plan.
In a memo on Wednesday written by Vanita Gupta, the associate attorney general, and obtained by The New York Times, the Justice Department announced a 90-day review that will examine whether it was doing enough to ensure that federal funds were not distributed to law enforcement organizations that engage in discrimination.
Approximately $4.5 billion in federal funding flows through the department to police departments, courts and correctional facilities. The department sought to increase that amount in its latest budget request to $7 billion for the next fiscal year.
The results of the review could allow the department to re-evaluate which law enforcement groups receive federal grants or to ask the courts to require recipients to change their policies or procedures in order to continue receiving the funds.
“The Civil Rights Act’s Title VI guarantees equal opportunity and full participation in federally-funded programs,” Ms. Gupta said. “By launching a departmentwide initiative to enhance our administration of these laws, we will help ensure that grant recipients provide that opportunity.”
Two laws prohibit racial discrimination in law enforcement programs that receive federal funds: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.
The laws are “critical tools in achieving the government’s obligation to ensure that public funds are not being used to finance illegal discrimination,” Ms. Gupta wrote in her memo, which was distributed to the head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, as well as the leaders of the Office of Justice Programs, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Office of Violence Against Women.
Those offices are responsible for distributing most of the grants overseen by the Justice Department.
Enforcement of Title VI, which requires that taxpayer money not be spent in ways that results in or support racial discrimination, falls entirely to the Justice Department. The Supreme Court has ruled that only the department can bring legal action under the statute.
“Title VI is a powerful tool, yet we do not see it fully utilized,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. Ms. Ifill has pushed the Justice Department to evaluate how it enforced Title VI in its funding programs.
For years, civil rights advocates have pressed the Justice Department to do more to ensure that the federal government withholds funds from law enforcement organizations deemed discriminatory, particularly after the 2014 killings of Black men by police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and on Staten Island, when Eric H. Holder Jr. was attorney general.
“We raised this with Attorney General Holder as a systemic issue that was evidenced in any number of other cases that had not received the kind of attention” that those deaths did, Ms. Ifill said.
She and others continued to press the Trump Justice Department and then the Biden administration in an April letter to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.
“The relentless and disproportionate police intimidation, harassment, and violence against Black and brown people throughout the United States has continued unabated for far too long,” Ms. Ifill wrote. “The department must take immediate action to address this threat to the safety of Black and brown communities and prevent unconstitutional police conduct against people of color in the United States.”
The distribution of funds is a powerful motivator that the Justice Department can use to promote good behavior among police forces. While grant recipients can lose their funding if they violate Title VI, such a move would be a last resort. Reducing funding could endanger communities because the money often pays for community policing programs and juvenile crime diversion efforts.
But as a condition of taking federal funding, grant recipients could also be subject to court orders to end discriminatory procedures, a remedy that the department could seek that would not remove funding from law enforcement. The Justice Department often works with police departments to resolve civil rights disputes before they go to court.
“It is hard to see the amount of money that goes to police departments and think we’re being true to the letter and spirit of Title VI,” Ms. Ifill said. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund has created an online database to track federal grants to police departments nationwide in order to illustrate how money has gone to jurisdictions accused of racial discrimination.
It also tracks, where possible, the amount of money that those jurisdictions pay in legal settlements related to racial discrimination.
In the review, the Justice Department’s grant distributors will examine its criteria for conducting compliance reviews and opening or closing complaint investigations; recommend improvements to strengthen data collection and reporting efforts by grant recipients; find ways to coordinate the work of grant distributors and those who enforce the law; and review the conditions in grants and the department’s procedures to address noncompliance.
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