WASHINGTON — Judge Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, says the Justice Department won’t shy away from holding police officers accountable.
During Garland’s confirmation hearing Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Garland was asked by Democratic senators, including Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, how he would address officer misconduct and civil rights abuses.
In particular, Hirono wanted to know if Garland was willing to use federal consent decrees to help reform police departments that have shown a “pattern and practice” of civil rights abuses.
Judge Merrick Garland answers questions during his confirmation hearing.
Garland told Hirono that consent decrees are just one of many tools that the DOJ can use to convince local law enforcement agencies to do better. The DOJ, he said, can also provide grants and technical assistance.
He described police accountability as “an essential element” in building trust between the police and the citizens they’re sworn to protect.
“Without credibility and trust, a police department cannot do its job of ensuring the safety of the community,” Garland said. “Police officers who violate the Constitution must be held accountable, and police officers who follow the Constitution want police officers who do not to be held accountable for just that reason, because it leads to a taint on all police officers, which would be unfair.”
During the Obama administration, consent decrees were used to address corruption in the New Orleans Police Department and racial disparities in policing in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014.
But under President Donald Trump, former attorney general Jeff Sessions issued a memo that sought to curtail the use of the federal oversight agreements.
Garland’s comments about the need for more police accountability come as Hawaii’s largest law enforcement agency — the Honolulu Police Department — struggles with curbing officer misconduct within the ranks and addressing disparities in use of force, particularly in the Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander communities.
Last year, retired HPD police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, former city prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, were sentenced to federal prison after they were caught trying to frame a family member for the theft of their mailbox and other crimes, including bank fraud.
Four other HPD police officers were found guilty for their part in the mailbox scheme, including Derek Hahn and Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, who stood trial alongside the Kealohas.
The Honolulu Police Commission, meanwhile, has been demanding answers from current HPD Chief Susan Ballard about the department’s disproportionate use of force against Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians and Black people.
Ballard, for her part, has been dismissive of the need for reform, telling commissioners over the summer that she hoped the nationwide calls for better oversight and racial equity would skip over the islands.
“The nation is behind,” Ballard told the commissioners. “There does need to be police reform, but can you leave number 50 state alone? We’re kind of doing OK over here.”
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