AG Sessions orders review of police consent decrees
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered his two top deputies to review Obama-era consent decrees that were slapped on police departments nationwide following racial unrest.
Activists fear that the review will lead to many of those consent decrees being withdrawn.
In a two-page memo released Monday, Sessions said agreements reached previously between the department's civil rights division and local police departments – a key legacy of the Obama administration – will be subject to review by his two top deputies, throwing into question whether all of the agreements will stay in place.
The memo was released not long before the department's civil rights lawyers asked a federal judge to postpone until at least the end of June a hearing on a sweeping police reform agreement, known as a consent decree, with the Baltimore Police Department that was announced just days before President Trump took office.
"The Attorney General and the new leadership in the Department are actively developing strategies to support the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country that seek to prevent crime and protect the public," Justice officials said in their filing. "The Department is working to ensure that those initiatives effectively dovetail with robust enforcement of federal laws designed to preserve and protect civil rights."
Sessions has often criticized the effectiveness of consent decrees and has vowed in recent speeches to more strongly support law enforcement.
Since 2009, the Justice Department opened 25 investigations into law enforcement agencies and has been enforcing 14 consent decrees, along with some other agreements. Civil rights advocates fear that Sessions's memo could particularly imperil the status of agreements that have yet to be finalized, such as a pending agreement with the Chicago Police Department.
"This is terrifying," said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who spent five years as the department's chief of special litigation, overseeing investigations into 23 police departments such as New Orleans, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. "This raises the question of whether, under the current attorney general, the Department of Justice is going to walk away from its obligation to ensure that law enforcement across the country is following the Constitution."
There is no doubt that corruption and racial factors afflict some police departments across the country. But is having Washington hand the cities a consent decree the best way to reform police departments?
Ideally, reform efforts should bring together communities, politicians, and the police. They know best the problems associated with crime and unfair enforcement of the law. They are far more likely than a bunch of civil rights lawyers in Washington to achieve a rough balance between the need to protect the rights of citizens and the need to keep the community safe.
But there are cities where that simply isn't possible, and some sort of action by the Justice Department is called for. What Sessions wants to do is make sure the scales against police departments don't tip too far in the direction of lax enforcement. Too many of these consent decrees cite an imbalance in the racial makeup of those arrested. While not the sole criterion for issuing a consent decree, it is too often used to tie the hands of local police from doing an effective job.
Liberals will howl, but reviewing these consent decrees is the right thing to do – especially given the Obama administration's reliance on race-based criteria to address a problem that cuts across racial and economic lines. Hopefully, the review will lead to DoJ working with departments and local communities to improve the safety and security of residents.