The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday that it's launching an "independent and comprehensive assessment" of the police department involved in the shooting death of Philando Castile.
St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Castile during a traffic stop in July, and now faces manslaughter charges in the case. In October, the police department asked the Justice Department for help assessing its policies and practices.
Castile's death has intensified conversations about police-community relations in Falcon Heights, the small suburb of St. Paul where he was killed. Falcon Heights, along with the nearby city of Lauderdale, contracts with the St. Anthony Police Department because it doesn't have police of its own.
With Thursday's announcement, the St. Anthony Police Department becomes the 16th nationally to enter into the collaborative reform process with the Justice Department.
What is a collaborative reform initiative?
It's a review of a local police department by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
It is not an investigation of specific incidents, cases or officers, but instead an analysis of police department policies and practices that could affect the public's trust. This is not a federal investigation of Yanez or the Castile case. It's meant to be a big-picture look at operations, trends and the details of the system.
The DOJ analysis is intended to identify ways the department can improve its relationship with the community.
What's within the scope of the review?
The Department of Justice will bring in policing experts to look at the St. Anthony department's documents, to accompany officers on calls and to interview officers about the changes they'd like to see in their department. Investigators will look at the department's hiring and recruitment practices, and the DOJ will also host community forums to hear from residents about their relationships with police.
The agency will then release a set of recommendations designed to improve the department's policies and professional culture.
The exact scope of the St. Anthony review hasn't yet been released. But assessments at other police departments around the country each had a slightly different focus.
As part of a review of the Fayetteville, N.C., police department, the city and the Department of Justice looked at ways to improve officers' interactions with communities of color. The review in Milwaukee focused more on policies, including recruitment and use of force.
What other departments have gone through the process?
Fifteen other police departments — in places like Calexico, Calif., Philadelphia and Las Vegas — have participated in the program so far. St. Anthony's is the smallest of the group.
That's significant, because the director of the COPS program, Ronald Davis, said that among the factors the Justice Department weighed in deciding whether to bring St. Anthony into the program was national impact.
Three-quarters of U.S. police departments have fewer than 25 officers — around the same size as the St. Anthony department. Whatever the DOJ does in Minnesota could be a model for the rest of the country.
Does this mean the federal government is taking control of the St. Anthony Police Department?
Collaborative reform is a voluntary process that begins when a city or department requests the federal government's help.
St. Anthony Police Chief Jon Mangseth said he and his command staff support the process.
How long will the process take?
In all, it will likely take about two years. The initial investigation will take between eight and 10 months, Davis said Thursday.
After that, the Justice Department will publicly release its recommendations, and officials will spend the next 18 months helping the police department implement any recommendations. They'll release periodic reports on St. Anthony's progress along the way.
Is a collaborative reform initiative enforceable?
A program like this is voluntary — it begins with a request from St. Anthony, and it's up to the city and police department to implement changes as it chooses — but all the findings and recommendations are made public. That transparency can pressure departments to make changes.
"It will be forced through the court of public opinion," not the court of law, Davis said Thursday, as he asked the community to hold the city and police department accountable throughout the process.
The Department of Justice considers this a technical assistance program — in which the federal government helps a local police department identify problems, and supports it as it puts fixes in place. But it isn't bound by court orders.
However, if the Justice Department uncovers repeated or systematic violations of constitutional rights, its civil rights division can still launch a "pattern or practice" investigation into the St. Anthony Police Department.
Investigations like that come directly from the Justice Department — they're not voluntary on the part of the police department — and can lead to settlements that require policy changes. Those investigations can also end in a consent decree — a court order that brings with it mandated changes and often long-term monitoring of the police department.
Does this collaborative reform program work?
Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor who studies policing, said departments can be resistant to real change because even if city leaders are sincere about participating in the voluntary collaborative process, other stakeholders, like officers and police unions, still need to be brought into the fold.
"Getting everybody to sit at the same table and agree on a set of principles and actions to follow through on is sometimes a hard task, given these kinds of different force fields, you could call them, within the police department," Fagan said.
After the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department went through the process, the city put in place nearly all of the Justice Department's recommendations: It updated its use-of-force policy, began using body cameras and reformed its process for investigating shootings in which officers were involved.
Davis said police departments in Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Spokane, Wash., saw significant drops in the number of shootings involving police officers after they went through the process with the COPS office.
But using a collaborative review process in a town like St. Anthony, which is sandwiched between lots of other communities, could lead to some complications, Fagan said.
"How can a police department in a small town like that be accountable to the citizens of all the cities, of all the municipalities around it, when they don't have any leverage over them?" he said.
The Justice Department's collaborative reform program was launched in 2011, so it's too early to say whether there's been lasting change.
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