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Biden's Administration Will Have A Lot Of Work To Do Addressing Civil Rights


All right. President-elect Joe Biden wants to make civil rights a top priority in his administration. Advocates who follow the Justice Department say there is a lot of repair work to be done. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A few months after Donald Trump became president, he delivered remarks about law enforcement that set the tone for civil rights. Former Justice Department prosecutor Kristy Parker remembers.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I said, please don't be too nice.


TRUMP: Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you're protecting their head, you know? The way you put their hand over...


TRUMP: Like, don't hit their head, and they've just killed somebody. Don't hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, OK?

KRISTY PARKER: He essentially told them, go ahead and use excessive force. Don't be too nice to the people you arrest.

JOHNSON: Parker says that speech marked a major turnaround.

PARKER: Where I think we see a real fall down by this administration and a purposeful one is in prosecutions of police officers who do their work, you know, out on the streets.

JOHNSON: It's not just cases against individual cops who break the law. Veterans of the Justice Department say there's been a retreat on another front, investigating entire police departments for patterns or practices of discrimination. Jonathan Smith used to run that unit at the DOJ.

JONATHAN SMITH: There's been 70 investigations that were brought. And 25 of those were brought during the Obama administration and one was brought during the Trump administration.

JOHNSON: That's 25 in the Obama years, one under Trump. Smith says states like Illinois, Colorado and Minnesota have tried to step in to police the police.

SMITH: But it's very different than the kind of resources and authority that comes from the United States Department of Justice. And I don't think it's a substitute.

JOHNSON: Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, viewed state and local law enforcement as partners. He said federal investigations would demoralize police. In one of his last acts in office, Sessions issued a memo removing a key tool from civil rights enforcers. His memo made it nearly impossible to use court-enforced consent decrees to help oversee police forces. Vanita Gupta ran the Civil Rights Division in the Obama years.

VANITA GUPTA: That memo should be withdrawn Day 1 of this new administration.

JOHNSON: Gupta says the country is in a different place now when it comes to police oversight.

GUPTA: I think there is no question that George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis this summer really forced a crucial reckoning around race and public safety.

JOHNSON: Biden says there has to be accountability. And he wants to bring police and civil rights groups into the White House next year to talk about the issues. Civil rights advocates say the election has highlighted another big action item, doing more to protect voters. Lisa Cylar Barrett is director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She wants to see lawmakers pass a new voting rights law named after the late Congressman John Lewis. But she says the new Justice Department can act even without Congress.

LISA CYLAR BARRETT: So the Civil Rights Division has previously played a very active role in enforcing voting rights by bringing cases under Section II of the Voting Rights Act.

JOHNSON: The law allows justice and others to sue states over discriminatory practices. That's a step the Obama DOJ took only to be reversed under President Trump. Cylar Barrett says expectations for the new team are high.

BARRETT: We are hopeful to have the Civil Rights Division restored to its intended purpose.

JOHNSON: After all, she says, Congress created the division more than 60 years ago to protect the most vulnerable communities.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEEDOMETER'S "RUBBERNECK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.