At the U.S. Supreme Court, where the limits of police power are established, the Justice Department has supported police officers every time an excessive-force case has made its way to arguments, reports the New York Times. Even as it has opened more than 20 civil rights investigations into local law enforcement practices, DOJ has staked out positions that make it harder for people to sue the police and that give officers more discretion about when to fire their guns. Police groups see Attorney General Eric Holder as an ally in that regard, and that pattern has rankled civil rights lawyers, who say the government can have a far greater effect on policing by interpreting law at the Supreme Court than through investigations of individual departments.
“There is an inherent conflict between people at the Justice Department trying to stop police abuses and other people at the Justice Department convincing the Supreme Court that police abuses should be excused,” said Ronald Kuby, a New York City civil rights lawyer. Conflict is built into the system. The Justice Department's core mission is law enforcement. “It's natural that the instinctive reaction of the department is to support law enforcement interests, even when a particular case may have compelling facts for the individual defendant,” said Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general in the Obama administration. He said the Justice Department had a duty to tell the court what effect a ruling could have for federal law enforcement agencies.