Justice Dept. changes community policing; St. Anthony uncertain about effect

Protesters march from St. Anthony Village.
Protesters gathered for a Justice for Philando Castile rally outside the St. Anthony police department headquarters on July 10, 2016.
Angela Jimenez for MPR News

The Department of Justice announced changes Friday to a program that's been used to recommend reforms to police departments roiled by controversial shootings across the country. The federal agency has been working with the police department in the Twin Cities suburb of St. Anthony after an officer shot and killed Philando Castile in July 2016.

The DOJ's collaborative reform initiative assessed the policies of police departments and recommended changes in cities like Milwaukee and North Charleston, S.C., following instances in which officers killed African-American men.

The program will shift its focus to offering resources to law enforcement agencies that fight violent crime, according to a statement on the Department of Justice website.

"Changes to this program will fulfill my commitment to respect local control and accountability, while still delivering important tailored resources to local law enforcement to fight violent crime," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. "This is a course correction to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support."

St. Anthony has been under the DOJ assessment since December. The city voluntarily decided to work with federal officials several months after Castile's shooting.

St. Anthony City Manager Mark Casey said city officials learned about the program's changes today.

"We're not fully certain what it means for the collaborative reform initiative, but the city remains committed to a technical assessment process that results in specific recommendations for improvement. We'll continue to make certain that this process progresses," Casey said.

City officials plan to speak with representatives of the Justice Department on Monday about how the change may affect St. Anthony's collaborative reform process.

American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Kanya Bennett condemned the changes in a statement, calling them "truly appalling."

"This program was a voluntary and collaborative partnership between the Department of Justice, law enforcement, and local officials that provided police departments with the tools needed to advance practices against excessive force or biased policing," Bennett said. "Ending the program is a big mistake that will adversely impact communities of color."

A Justice department official said the agency is willing to work with St. Anthony to transition to the new process and "fulfill its technical assistance needs."

In other cities involved in collaborative reform processes, the official said the agency won't do "wide-ranging assessments and progress reports" but will work with chiefs to "tailor a technical assistance program that more appropriately and specifically addresses their concerns."

The official said there are other agencies within the Justice Department that can do audits or investigations.

A document from the agency said the program's recent focus on assessing law enforcement agencies had the "unintended consequence of a more adversarial relationship between DOJ and the participating law enforcement agencies."

The agency's document about the changes outlined a role for reducing crime and gun violence by offering more resources to law enforcement agencies. Among other things, the program will focus in 2017 and 2018 on "police response to mass demonstrations," "active shooter response" and "officer safety and wellness."

Sessions ordered all Department of Justice activities to be reviewed after he took office. The agency said in the statement that this is the conclusion of the collaborative reform program's review.

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