Trump administration's overhaul of police reform initiative was "a punch in the gut" to North Charleston, S.C.

North Charleston community seeks DOJ report
North Charleston community seeks DOJ report 04:29

Despite a nationwide push for police reform, Republicans and Democrats remain divided on the best way to enact change. In 2017, the Trump administration drastically changed a program designed to bring more transparency to troubled police departments.

The Obama administration launched the Collaborative Reform Initiative in 2011 to bring together local communities and law enforcement leadership on a voluntary basis to tackle issues like use-of-force and racial bias.

When the Department of Justice overhauled the program three years ago, it left one town in South Carolina fighting for data and prompted a lawsuit. 

In North Charleston, the 2015 fatal shooting of 50-year-old Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man, was the community's breaking point. Michael Slager, the officer who shot Scott, was later sentenced to 20 years for violating his civil rights.

"Walter Scott wasn't the first officer-involved shooting in North Charleston," Thomas Dixon, a local pastor, told CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge. "The evidence from the community, the reports from the community, were long-standing."

Vigils and protests followed, as grief gave way to hope that a new approach was imminent.

A year after Scott's death, local officials and the DOJ launched a collaborative review of the North Charleston police.

The voluntary process, in which the North Charleston Police Department agreed to participate, involved compiling a report. That report would be released to the public along with recommendations for reform. 

The initiative "would have been another tool that the Justice Department had to work with communities and local leadership," said Vanita Gupta, who ran the Obama administration's civil rights division and is now the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. 

But in 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions overhauled the program, ending the assessment process and the release of public reports.

"Upon a thorough review of the program and consultation with law enforcement professionals across the country, the Collaborative Reform Technical Assistance Program was modified to provide targeted assistance directly to local law enforcement based on their identified needs and requests," a DOJ spokesperson said. "The program modifications were made 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."

CBS News found at least 13 jurisdictions were impacted by the changes, including North Charleston.

"This administration basically undid the program and left these jurisdictions in the lurch," Gupta said.

That year, North Charleston residents called on the DOJ to be transparent and release any reports.

The state's Republican Senator Tim Scott also urged officials to "release any final or near final findings and recommendations," but that never happened. 

"It was really a punch in the gut to the community," said Monique Dixon, the deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "They essentially told Black and Brown communities that we're not concerned about how you feel about public safety."

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is suing the DOJ for a copy of the report after an official request yielded a document that is almost entirely blacked out. 

"If we had that report," Monique Dixon said, "we would be in the third year of monitoring those recommendations. We would not be in the position in which we're in where residents said that little has changed."

Earlier this year, another violent episode was captured on video in a North Charleston hotel.

"Five years after Walter Scott, it's not isolated, and it's because the information that could have got the skeletons out of the closet were contained in that DOJ investigation," Thomas Dixon said.

"To abdicate the use of this tool, I think, has really underserved the American public and at a time where so many people are clamoring for change," Gupta said.

A DOJ spokesperson told CBS News the issue is not under consideration because they say the draft reports contain unsubstantiated information.

In North Charleston, city officials recently authorized a racial bias audit of the police department.