Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday ordered a sweeping review of police accountability agreements, prompting a wave of criticism from civil and human rights groups.
Sessions' order means that the Department of Justice (DOJ) may stop using consent decrees that aimed to address police brutality and other institutional problems, or refrain from fully implementing the ones that exist. The attorney general previously opposed the agreements, which are considered a legacy of the Obama administration.
The move is "a clear indication that [Sessions'] Department of Justice is moving toward abandoning its obligations to uphold federal civil rights laws through consent decrees," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
"Consent decrees are a crucial tool in the Justice Department's enforcement of civil rights in a variety of areas, including addressing police misconduct. They are only issued after careful study, review, and approval by a federal judge, often after a determination that law enforcement acted in an unconstitutional manner," Henderson said. "These latest developments are particularly ironic given that in the same memo outlining a review of these vital consent decrees, Attorney General Sessions also noted that 'local law enforcement must protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the public.'"
In a memorandum dated March 31 and made public Monday, Sessions directed his staff to review whether police departments are adhering to principles put forth by the Trump administration, including one that states "the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn" police officers from "keeping American communities safe."
"The underlying issues that consent decrees address have not disappeared."
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Many saw the order as a signal that the rightwing White House would disregard recent gains in improving relations between law enforcement and communities of color, an issue that gained public traction since the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri protests.
The Obama administration ordered a comprehensive review of numerous police departments throughout the U.S., which uncovered an unsurprising epidemic of institutional racism and police brutality against people of color.
"Yesterday, the Department of Justice proved what we have known all along: Attorney General Jeff Sessions has no regard for civil and human rights," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said Tuesday. "The decision to target police reforms that have been negotiated with police departments with a documented history of civil rights violations is reprehensible. Let me be clear, this review marks the first step in the Trump administration's misguided 'law and order' agenda that will blunt the progress we made on police reform under President [Barack] Obama's leadership."
"We simply cannot afford to turn back the clock on reforms that prevent innocent black women and men from being gunned down in the streets," Lee said. "The time to resist is now. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I will fight to block funding for any effort to thwart the urgent need for police reform."
The New York Times reported:
As part of its shift in emphasis, the Justice Department went to court on Monday to seek a 90-day delay in a consent decree to overhaul Baltimore's embattled police department. That request came just days before a hearing, scheduled for Thursday in the United States District Court in Baltimore, to solicit public comment on the agreement, which was reached in principle by the city and the Justice Department in the waning days of the Obama administration.
Ray Kelly, the president of the Baltimore-based No Boundaries Coalition, a citizen advocacy group, told the Times, "This has all been negotiated by the affected parties. Now we have an outside entity telling us what's best for our citizens and our community when he has no experience, no knowledge."
Baltimore was one of several cities, including Ferguson; Cleveland, Ohio; and Seattle, Washington that were part of the Obama administration's efforts to reform relations, after DOJ investigations found systemic issues. The Baltimore consent decree was reached after protests over the police killing of Freddie Gray revealed systemic racial profiling and other discriminatory tactics.
Likewise, David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, said, "Why is everyone in Baltimore ready to move forward with police reform except Donald Trump's Department of Justice? The Trump administration's move to put off a long-planned public hearing, where the court was going to hear directly from Baltimore residents about their views of the Baltimore Police Department, and the necessity of a consent decree as part of the reform process, is a slap in the face to the people of Baltimore."
"And it is a clear sign that the Trump administration is seeking to undo, and walk away from, the consent decree that is a critical part of reforming Baltimore's police department," Rocah said.
Henderson continued, "The underlying issues that consent decrees address have not disappeared. The attorney general would do well to remember that he must serve the public, and continue to use every tool at his disposal to support police practices that preserve life and protect all."