Sessions Orders Justice Department to Review All Police Reform Agreements

Sari Horwitz, Mark Berman and Wesley Lowery, Washington Post, April 3, 2017

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Credit Image: © Yuri Gripas/Reuters via ZUMA Press)

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.

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The Baltimore agreement, reached after Freddie Gray died in April 2015 following an injury in police custody, calls for changes including training officers on how to resolve conflicts without force. The Justice Department asked for 90 additional days to assess whether the agreement fits with the “directives of the President and the Attorney General.”

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Officials who negotiated the agreement criticized the move. Vanita Gupta, former head of the Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, said that “the request for a delay is alarming and signals a retreat from the Justice Department’s commitment to civil rights and public safety in Baltimore.”

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But Gene Ryan, president of the union that represents rank-and-file police officers in Baltimore, said he welcomed the federal government’s request. {snip}

The agreement reached between Baltimore and the Justice Department was announced in January, coming after a push by Obama administration officials to secure police reform agreements before Trump took office. The department, in a report last year, said the Baltimore police engaged in racially discriminatory policing and used excessive force because of “systemic deficiencies” in the department.

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The federal civil rights probe was launched after Gray, 25, died of a spinal cord injury he suffered while in police custody.

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Then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch described the decree, which must be approved by a federal judge, as “binding” and something that “will live on.” A day later, Lynch went to Chicago for the release of a sprawling federal investigation into that city’s police department that similarly assailed its practices. It’s now unclear what will happen with either of the agreements.

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