An investigation is currently underway in Everett by the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts' Office. The probe comes in the wake of protests and demonstrations against racism and discrimination in the city, which led to the resignation of two city officials. Daniel Medwed, GBH News legal analyst and Northeastern University law professor, joined GBH’s Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about investigation, and the context of other investigations around the state and country. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Jeremy Siegel: So, Daniel, a federal investigation — what are some of these complaints about what's going on in Everett?

Daniel Medwed: Well, there are quite a few. Here’s an overview: A majority of the 49,000 residents of Everett are people of color, but virtually the entire governmental power structure is all white. And recently we've learned about a number of blatantly racist comments that have come to light that led to the resignation of at least one city councilor and a communications director.

Now, some people think that there's something far more insidious than personal bigotry going on — that this stems from a deep-seeded institutional culture of discrimination, where people of color are systematically excluded from the corridors of power at all levels of government — the library committee, the school committee and so on. And where there might be favoritism in awarding jobs and municipal contracts. So in a sense, I think U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins is signaling, "hey, where there's smoke, there could be fire. Let's look into this and see whether, in fact, there is a pattern of concrete discrimination in Everett."

"Some people think [that] this stems from a deep-seeded institutional culture of discrimination, where people of color are systematically excluded from the corridors of power at all levels of government."

Paris Alston: I imagine it might be a little controversial for federal prosecutors to be sticking their noses in city government like this. Some people might view that as sort of encroaching on state sovereignty.

Medwed: I think you're right. On the one hand, from the perspective of states’ rights, it's worrisome to have the feds looking over your shoulder and looking into state and local governmental activities. But on the other hand, I think it's just a natural outgrowth of our federalist structure. After all, the Constitution provides that federal law is the supreme law of the land. What that means is that federal law provides a floor under which states may not go.

States can always provide more protection to citizens than federal law demands, but they can’t provide fewer protections. And there has to be some apparatus, some mechanism for the federal government to ensure that states are complying with this obligation. And that's where I think these federal civil rights investigations come into play.

Siegel: So the federal government is able to do these investigations. Are there laws or regulations that govern how the investigations can be done?

Medwed: There is a patchwork quilt of laws. And frankly, it's a pretty complex interplay in terms of figuring out which federal agency has purview over this type of investigation, and which one has purview over another type of investigation. But in short, the Department of Justice, which houses our U.S. Attorney's Office, has this long-standing power to instigate federal civil rights investigations into state and local government agencies.

We've had civil rights laws on the books ever since Reconstruction, right after the Civil War. But really this modern investigative power stems from the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the civil rights section of the Department of Justice, established the Civil Rights Commission, and formally vested the Department of Justice with the authority to investigate federal voting rights and violations at the state and local level.

Now, this power has been expanded over the last six decades, most notably after the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. Congress responded by passing a law that gave the Department of Justice the power to conduct what are called pattern or practice investigations of local police departments, to make sure that essentially police departments aren't systematically depriving citizens of their civil rights.

Alston: How common are these investigations and are there other similar ones happening in Massachusetts?

Medwed: Well, their popularity really seems to ebb and flow based on the priorities of the presidential administration in power. So under President Barack Obama, for instance, they were very common. Under President Donald Trump, they virtually dried up. And now they seem to be on the upswing again with President Biden. So, for instance, this is not Rachael Rollins' only federal civil rights investigation in Massachusetts.

A couple weeks ago, she indicated that she wanted to look into what's happening in Quincy. There has been a huge kerfuffle in Quincy over whether to rebuild the Long Island Bridge that would connect Quincy to an island owned by the city of Boston. Some observers think that the opposition in Quincy to this project derives from the fact that Boston may have plans to build a substance abuse treatment center on the island. And since people with substance abuse disorders are treated as a protected class under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it seems as though Rachael Rollins wants to investigate whether there could be an ADA violation here. That, of course, remains to be seen.

Siegel: Earlier, you mentioned how federal prosecutors occasionally investigate local police departments as part of their civil rights enforcement power. You talked about some of these efforts sort of drying up under President Trump. But President Trump did launch a probe into the Springfield Police Department. What is the status of that investigation?

Medwed: That was the singular investigation of Trump's Department of Justice to look into the city of Springfield Police Department, especially its narcotics bureau. So in July 2020, that investigation yielded a scathing, stunning report that chronicled a series of excessive force violations in Springfield, including the use of takedown techniques by officers that really imperiled civilians and aggravated the risk of head injuries over the past two years. Things have seemingly improved under a new police commissioner, and the disbanding of this narcotics bureau. And just in April, the city of Springfield entered into a formal settlement agreement with the feds to resolve some of these concerns.

So there's now a court ordered consent decree that requires the city of Springfield to improve its training and reporting of use of force incidents going forward. So I think this story in Springfield is illustrative of the power of these federal civil rights investigations, and how they can be a force for good and protect citizens from all sorts of municipal and state governmental misdeeds.