Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled a major break from the Obama administration on Monday when he released a memo saying that the Department of Justice would review its agreements with troubled local police departments.
Dozens of law enforcement agencies are currently legally bound to implement reforms according to the court-enforced agreements, known as consent decrees. They’re typically implemented following an investigation by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division that finds evidence of systemic bias.
The Obama administration entered into 11 such agreements, far more than any past administration.
Sessions is unable to unilaterally roll back existing consent decrees — doing so would require the approval of a federal judge — but his memo may jeopardize police reforms in Chicago and Baltimore, where agreements with the federal government are still pending.
Here are the key passages in the memo and what experts say they really mean:
The Department will use its resources to effectively promote a peaceful and lawful society, where the civil rights of all persons are valued and protected.
William Yeomans, who spent 26 years in the Department of Justice and served as the deputy assistant attorney general before leaving in 2006, says he doesn’t buy this, given Sessions’ “seeming disregard for the people whose constitutional rights are violated by police officers.”
Sessions has recognized that racial bias in policing can be a problem, but he has rejected efforts to improve data collection by law enforcement, citing concerns that such information being made public could disincentivize officers from doing their jobs. While his predecessor, Loretta Lynch, was open to hearing grievances from activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, Sessions has characterized them as a threat and danger to law enforcement.
The safety and protection of the public is the paramount concern and duty of law enforcement officials.
The question is how to make certain this duty is carried out appropriately, and whether consent decrees are the best way to do it.
Ronal Serpas, a former New Orleans police chief, says consent decrees can be a “key tool” in effective policing. Serpas became New Orleans police chief in 2010, the same time the DOJ launched a “pattern and practice” investigation into the force that culminated in a consent decree three years later.
“They can provide important guidance when change has been hard to achieve in other ways,” Serpas said.
Local law enforcement must protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the public.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, America’s largest police union, doesn’t think police violations of civil rights is a major problem.
“From time to time, police officers make mistakes or do things that are illegal,” Pasco said. “Those instances are extraordinarily few and numbered, given the total number of police officers in the U.S.”
Pasco’s group was consulted by the Trump administration during the writing of the memo, which in turn reflects his group’s view that an increase in attention paid to civil rights violations doesn’t mean there’s a systemic problem in U.S. policing.
“In the last few years, because of social media and media in general,” Pasco said, “there’s been a heightening of an inaccurate perception that there is systemic law-breaking going on.”
The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe.
“There’s some truth to that,” said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina. “Every profession and every industry has people who are assholes, incompetent, or both. But there’s significantly more to it. In many situations, an individual officer’s misdeed is the ultimate result of systemic factors.”
Sessions has repeatedly shrugged off the notion that systemic problems in police departments can make law enforcement less effective.
The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division launches pattern and practice investigations into law enforcement agencies to identify and root out systemic problems.
Stoughton points to examples like Ferguson, where the city was over-policing poor, minority communities and using fines for misdemeanors as a major revenue source, and New York, where the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy was ultimately ruled unconstitutional because it unfairly targeted people of color.
With this line of the letter, Sessions demonstrates “either ignorance of or unconcern for the painful lessons that history has taught us,” Stoughton said, adding that it “suggests an incomplete and ineffective approach to addressing problems in policing.”
The collection and analysis of timely, reliable statistics on crime and criminals are essential for effective law enforcement strategies.
“We do need timely and reliable data about policing,” Stoughton said. “Although I would go beyond Mr Sessions’ focus on ‘crime and criminals’ and include information about what officers do.”
Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.
In the past, Sessions has expressed concern that federal scrutiny of local police departments could have a chilling effect on law enforcement activity and morale.
During his Senate confirmation hearing in January, he asserted that suing a law enforcement agency can “undermine the respect for police officers.”
“He has basically said that the federal government doesn’t have any business in running local police departments, and by that I assume he means suing them under Section 14141,” Yeomans said, referring to the Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute. “That to me is disturbing across the board, and what it suggests is that there would not be vigorous enforcement of pattern of practice authority going forwards.”