Exclusive: Elizabeth Warren Unveils Bill To Boost Justice Department's Power To Hold Police Accountable

Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) bill would revitalize the Department of Justice's civil rights office.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) bill would revitalize the Department of Justice's civil rights office. via Associated Press

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a bill Wednesday that would give federal and state officials more power to hold police departments accused of bad behavior to account.

The Enhancing Oversight to End Discrimination in Policing Act, led by Warren and in the House by Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.), would strengthen the power of state attorneys general to launch investigations into police departments involved in civil rights violations if the Justice Department fails to act on them.

The bill would also task the Justice Department with looking beyond “traditional law enforcement mechanisms” when providing reforms to selective police departments such as mental health support, civilian oversight bodies, and community-based restorative justice programs, according to Warren’s office.

Warren had introduced a version of the bill in 2020. This newest version of the measure would also revitalize the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, granting an increase in funding to pursue civil rights investigations into police departments and other government offices accused of discriminatory practices.

It would increase funding for the civil rights division to $445 million per year over a 10-year period. (For scale, the 2023 budget for the division was $189.9 million.)

Warren first introduced her bill following the death of George Floyd in 2020. That earlier draft also called for Attorney General Merrick Garland to rescind a 2017 memorandum from his predecessor, Trump-era Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that limited the DOJ’s ability to initiate consent decrees on police departments — a key way of stopping bad behavior. (Garland rescinded that memorandum in April of 2021.)

Nine senators co-sponsored the bill: Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

Several civil rights organizations are backing Warren’s new bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and others.

Allies of presidential candidate Donald Trump have discussed overhauling the Justice Department if he’s elected in 2024. That could include diminishing how aggressively the department pursues investigations into local and state police for potential  civil rights violations.

President Joe Biden has tried to pursue more oversight of police departments accused of discrimination. He appointed Kristen Clarke as the assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division, the first Black woman to get the job. And at the end of 2023, Biden announced a national law enforcement accountability database to document federal law enforcement officers found to have engaged in misconduct. 

His moves come as there have been several high-profile police killings and incidents of brutality over the last several years.

In April, six Mississippi police officers were sentenced to prison for federal civil rights violations after officers terrorized and sexually assaulted Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker, two Black men, because of their race.

The officers were members of the “Goon Squad”, a rogue unit within a Mississippi sheriff’s department that had a culture of racist and violent police practices.

The Justice Department also launched an investigation into allegedly anti-Black policing practices by a police department in Lexington, a rural, predominantly Black Mississippi town.

Other departments were investigated after releasing body camera footage depicting officers beating or killing civilians.

On April 4, 2022, Patrick Lyoya, a Congolese refugee, was fatally shot during a traffic stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The officer, Christopher Schurr, was fired from the Grand Rapids Police Department and charged with second-degree murder.

And on Jan. 7, 2023, Tyre Nichols, a Black man from Memphis, Tennessee, was allegedly beaten to death by police officers after he fled a traffic stop. Nichols was pronounced dead in a hospital three days after the incident. 

“Police departments shouldn’t get away with chokeholds, unconstitutional searches, or killing unarmed teenagers. Our criminal justice system is broken — fixing it starts with holding police officers and departments accountable for discriminatory practices and ensuring thorough civil rights investigations are happening, free of conflicts of interest,” Warren said in a statement.