We are former Directors of the Community Relations Service (CRS) of the Department of Justice (DOJ) who have served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Each of us was confirmed with broad bipartisan support by the U.S. Senate. Each of us individually took the oath to defend the Constitution and pursue the administration of justice without partisan bias. Today we come together to mourn the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and numerous others, and to call on the Trump Administration to empower the Community Relations Service, which is charged with resolving racial conflicts, and which this Administration has targeted for elimination.
The current administration’s misguided effort to eliminate CRS has placed this country into a much more vulnerable position when it comes to law enforcement-community relations. Specifically, undermining CRS has made it much harder for communities to exercise a partnership voice in creating real change toward racial justice. Throughout the last three plus years, the current administration has sought to eliminate CRS’ budget and move the function of the agency to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Doing so would be unwise and unworkable given that the Civil Rights Division has an investigatory and litigation function, which is vastly different from CRS’ conciliation and mediation function. Working as mediators and not investigators, CRS conciliators work with community leaders, mayors, police chiefs and sheriffs to have much more open dialogue that can lead to substantive policy changes and more collaborative and resilient relationships.
The Community Relations Service is a DOJ agency whose mission was created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Per Title X of the Act, “the function of the Service (CRS) is to provide assistance to communities and persons therein resolving disputes disagreements or difficulties relating to the discriminatory practices based on race, color, or national origin which impair the rights of persons in such communities under the Constitution or laws of the United States or which affect or may affect interstate commerce.”
For decades, Community Relations Service mediators from the Department of Justice have been working with community leaders to address the mistreatment of black and brown people by law enforcement. That work has involved bringing together law enforcement officials with leaders from civil rights, faith, youth, business, community, and other civic organizations. It has meant mediating agreements to alter use-of-force policies, and roles in consent decree agreements to hold police departments more accountable by including more community members in overview roles.
CRS has played a crucial role in resolving conflicts since the 1960s. Ensuring freedom of speech and safety for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, and all the protestors as they marched across the Pettis Bridge in Selma; preventing violence and acrimony in Boston, Detroit, and many other cities during public school desegregation; facilitating safety and recovery during and after the Los Angeles riots following the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police; and working closely with protestors and city officials in Sanford, Florida to enable protestors to peacefully protest and help Sanford recover have been among the tasks of CRS mediators and conciliators who have worked tirelessly under every President for over half a century.
CRS staff has been reduced by more than 50% under the Trump Administration. Thus, its work has been narrowed dramatically, which has left it unable to serve local communities at anywhere near the level required. Given the scale, magnitude, and urgency of the current protests, and the need to increase community voice and substantive input into real and vital changes, we call for the Administration to bring back CRS staffing levels to at least what they were four years ago, and to allow conciliators to engage fully with community and law enforcement. This is a moment when true police reform can take place and we support the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 proposed last week by congressional members and we are gratified to see it increases CRS funding.
Our lawmakers have a fleeting opportunity to empower the part of the Department of Justice charged with and experienced in working with community stakeholders, law enforcement, as well as local and state officials. Impartial mediators are necessary to bridge the divides to leverage this moment, where real change in policing is possible. CRS conciliators and mediators are ready to step up their role and work with local communities and police departments to begin pursuing the hard work of identifying solutions like the community policing program in Camden, New Jersey. To transform anger and anguish into action requires parties to truly communicate with one other and not leave the table until plans of action are developed. The Trump administration has so far not supported community partnerships with law enforcement, and we call on the Administration to enable CRS to convene local, state, and national community leaders, police chiefs, and senior administration officials to begin a serious national dialogue that will translate into actual action and not just words. It is incumbent upon our elected officials to listen to the multitude of voices asking for resolution, to bring our country together, and to prevent any more senseless tragedies.