Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta is leveraging longstanding relationships with police

Pictured on Jan. 7, 2021, is Vanita Gupta, President Joe Biden’s nominee for associate attorney general. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison has helmed two law enforcement agencies operating under Justice Department supervision, and he often shares advice with peers whose departments are also facing federal scrutiny.

On a recent day, however, it was not another chief, but associate attorney general Vanita Gupta who was seeking his input.

In the Obama administration, Gupta oversaw the federal investigation into Baltimore’s police department in the wake of the April 2015 police shooting death of a Black resident, a probe that resulted in a court-approved consent decree mandating sweeping reforms. On a 45-minute Zoom call, she listened as Harrison and two deputies shared frustrations over the inconsistent process by which court-appointed monitors judged their reform efforts – first in New Orleans, where Harrison was superintendent from 2014-2019, and since then in Baltimore.

“She was really in listening mode and not telling us what she thought, but rather hearing what we had to say,” Harrison said in an interview. “I think she’s looking for the same thing we’re looking for: How can the Department of Justice ensure the effectiveness of these consent decrees and are there any efficiencies that can be found?”

The zoom call was part of a four-month review that Gupta, who joined the Biden administration in April, is conducting of federal monitors, who have drawn the ire of police leadership. The review was mandated by Attorney General Merrick Garland in April when he rescinded a Trump-era ban on the Justice Department’s use of consent decree settlements with local jurisdictions.

The conversation also was an example of Gupta’s efforts to maintain support and cooperation from law enforcement as the administration seeks to balance the politically sensitive demands of holding police accountable for abusive conduct and supporting local departments with additional resources amid a spike in violent crime.

For Gupta, the challenge is amplified because Republicans have targeted her and Kristen Clarke, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in their efforts to paint President Joe Biden as beholden to far-left activists who pushed to “defund the police” during the social justice protests last summer.

In fact, Biden has affirmed a campaign pledge to bolster funding to support hiring more police and improving training. In the administration’s fiscal 2022 budget request, the Justice Department is seeking $651 million for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which dispenses federal grants to law enforcement agencies. That represents a $265 million increase over the amount Congress approved in the final year of the Trump administration.

But that hasn’t stopped Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas from continuing to attack Gupta as a radical seeking to dismantle police departments. The conservative lawmakers, who had tried to block her confirmation, have cited a brief passage in written testimony that Gupta, then the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, submitted last summer during a congressional hearing in which she voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement’s push to “decrease police budgets and the scope, role and responsibility of police in our lives.”

Gupta did not include that passage in her oral remarks at the congressional hearing. She and Clarke each said at their respective Senate confirmations in the spring that they do not support defunding police.

Gupta and Clarke “are two of the leading advocates for defunding and abolishing the police,” Cruz told Fox News host Sean Hannity last week. “That’s who’s helping run the Department of Justice right now.”

Cotton made a similar argument on Twitter: “Don’t listen to what Joe Biden says. Look at what he does. He picked two defund the police activists.”

Aides to Cotton and Cruz did not respond to an email request for comment. Gupta declined to comment for this story.

Despite the criticism, leading police chiefs and union officials rallied behind Gupta, writing letters of support ahead of her confirmation hearing. Several of them, interviewed this week, said they have maintained contact with Gupta since she was confirmed in mid-April with the support of all 50 Senate Democrats and a single Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

“Vanita and I certainly don’t agree on everything, but I talk with her virtually every day,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.

Pasco said they have discussed ways the Justice Department could offer more support for the mental and emotional health of officers. Local law enforcement agencies have struggled with recruitment and retention amid a surge in retirements and resignations across the country.

“We’re batting ideas back and forth and looking for areas of consensus,” Pasco said.

Since taking office, Gupta has quickly leveraged the relationships she established while serving as head of the Civil Rights Division from 2014-2017. During that period, she helped oversee the Obama administration’s increased use of federal “pattern or practice” investigations into systemic abuses by local police departments and helped implement the consent decrees that typically followed.

In the spring, Garland announced federal investigations into the police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville, where the police shooting deaths last year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, respectively, sparked months of nationwide protests. The Louisville announcement came during Gupta’s first week on the job, and she called Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Police Chief Erika Shields to offer support and urge them to keep in touch.

Justice Department lawyers spent a week in Louisville in late June reviewing documentation, Shields said, and they told her the investigation would last at least six months.

“I found her very accommodating,” said Shields, who was hired in January after four years as Atlanta’s police chief. “I don’t see anything that the DOJ has put forward or asked of us that is unreasonable. I don’t see her as rogue. She’s a good person for this role.”

Gupta is expected to complete her review of the federal consent decree monitors by August. Police groups have complained that the monitors have little incentive to declare local departments in compliance with federal reform mandates because their salaries are contingent on the length of the Justice Department’s oversight. Some police groups have recommended that the department hire permanent staff to act as monitors, rather than contracting outside experts.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said Gupta asked his organization to survey police leaders on the issue. She also sent him questions on eight topics to help to help the Justice Department develop research priorities.

“She wants to engage with police,” Wexler said. “She’s a reformer, but she does not want to do it in a way that antagonizes. You can’t reform the police without the police.”

During an online forum with Wexler’s group last month, Gupta emphasized the need to rebuild trust between police and their communities, and she defended the Justice Department’s use of consent decrees, saying the agency has used them “judiciously.” There are 15 active court settlements in place, most in big-city police departments, but Gupta said the agreements have produced a list of best practices for other law enforcement agencies willing to proactively adopt reforms.

She detailed federal efforts to bolster training, research and data collection, and she urged police departments to apply for grant funding. But she also said federal, state and local authorities must invest more in programs to deal with social problems, such as mental health issues and substance abuse, as a way to alleviate the demands on overburdened police departments.

“We’ve put all these problems at the feet of law enforcement, while not providing the same kinds of investment and focus on community-based interventions that could actually relieve some of the burdens from law enforcement,” Gupta said.

“I haven’t seen, whether it was Vanita in her last time around or since coming in under this administration, any signs of overzealousness,” said Terence Cunningham, the deputy executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who has discussed with Gupta ways to expand a Justice Department technical assistance center.

“One thing I can say about Vanita: She wields a scalpel,” Cunningham added. “She doesn’t come in with a bat or a hammer. She uses a scalpel to figure out what we can do to make policing better – and at the same time keep cops safe.”

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