The Justice Department's latest budget proposal would eliminate all funding for the Community Relations Service, an office established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to serve as a self-described "peacemaker" in communities facing racial tensions and hate crimes.
The department's proposed budget would get rid of the office's $15.4 million in funding and the 54 positions that are currently authorized. The office's responsibilities would be absorbed into the Civil Rights Division.
Lee Lofthus, who leads the Justice Department's administrative office, told reporters Monday that the department would be able to continue to carry out the functions provided by the Community Relations Service office without the employees working there now. He said the decision to propose getting rid of the standalone office was motivated by a internal "reorganization challenge" to save money.
The proposal comes as part of President Trump's new budget request, which is not final, and is often seen as a blueprint to mark the administration's priorities. It is up to Congress to approve funding for federal agencies. But civil rights advocates said they were dismayed with the message the move sent about the Justice Department's commitment to improving relations between local communities and law enforcement.
Grande Lum, who led the Community Relations Service from 2012 to 2016, told BuzzFeed News that eliminating the office in its current form would "be an absolute tragedy."
"We are at a time when there’s increased division in communities throughout this country, so this is a time to increase [funding], not to eliminate it," said Lum, who leads the Divided Community Project at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. "They worked closely with Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders to help create positive, constructive outcomes and it would be really frustrating if that were shuttered forever."
Lum questioned the department's authority to cut funding and employees, since the office was specifically established by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lum said he could not recall another time when an administration had proposed getting rid of it. Lum was the office's last Senate-confirmed director. Trump has not nominated a replacement; an acting official has been leading the office in the meantime.
Asked how eliminating the office's budget would meet the requirements of the Civil Rights Act, Justice Department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email that, "The Civil Rights Division has broad authorities relating to Civil Rights, consistent with [Community Relations Service] functions."
The conservative Heritage Foundation has advocated cutting funding to the office, arguing in a budget "blueprint" in 2016 that the Community Relations Service was "highly politicized" and had "actually escalated local tensions in such places as Ferguson, Missouri, and Florida following the arrest of George Zimmerman." Heritage and conservative government watchdog group Judicial Watch have accused the office of taking sides, as opposed to acting as a neutral mediator.
The office was created in 1964 to provide assistance to communities facing conflict related to "race, color, or national origin." Its mandate later expanded to also cover issues relating to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. Starting in 2009, following passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the office also took on issues relating to hate crimes.
The office's functions include providing mediation — particularly between law enforcement, local government officials, community members, and activists — and training on conflict resolution. It has 10 regional offices and four smaller field offices across the country.
The Civil Rights Division is an enforcement office, and the fact that it investigates and prosecutes cases would undermine the Community Relations Service's role as a mediator, Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
"Budget proposals show priorities, and yet again, the Trump administration is seeking to dismantle a key tool that helps address discrimination, conflicts and tensions in communities around the country," said Gupta, who led the Civil Rights Division from 2014 to 2017. "The Community Relations Service is effective specifically because it is neither an investigative or prosecutorial component of the Justice Department, opening doors that might otherwise be closed to the federal government."
Lofthus told reporters that if the funding is eliminated — it will still be up to Congress to approve the budget — the department would look for ways to help employees who would lose their jobs, including talking to the Office of Personnel Management about options for early retirement or finding other federal jobs.
Grande Lum told BuzzFeed News that it would be frustrating if the Community Relations Service was "shuttered forever." A previous version of this story included incorrect phrasing.