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DOJ to Review All Federal Agreements Calling for Police Reforms

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has questioned the effectiveness of police reform agreements in the past. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is looking to scale back federal agreements with a number of troubled police agencies across the nation, a move that could potentially bring much-needed law enforcement reforms to a screeching halt.

In a memo released Monday, April 3, Sessions ordered his Justice Department staff to review whether police programs were abiding by rules set forth by the Trump administration. One of those key rules declares that “the individual misdeeds of bad actors shouldn’t impugn” police efforts “in keeping American communities safe.” The contested principle has some civil rights advocates worried that focus will be shifted away from necessary reforms in law enforcement agencies known for their less-than-perfect policing.

“This is terrifying,” Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, told The Washington Post, who first reported the memo. “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.”

The newspaper reported that the DOJ appeared in court Monday seeking a 90-day deferment on a consent decree to overhaul Baltimore’s troubled police department. Just last year, the DOJ issued a scathing report on the city’s policing, citing everything from civil rights violations to discriminatory practices against African-Americans.

The Justice Department’s request for postponement came just days before a hearing in U.S. District Court to solicit public comment on the consent decree, or court-enforced agreement ordering the BPD to make reforms, reached between the city and DOJ in the waning days of Obama’s presidency, according to The New York Times. Mayor Katherine Pugh, however, has vowed to push back against Sessions’ efforts, saying that the Charm City would vehemently “oppose any delay in moving forward” with the reforms.

Ray Kelly, president of citizen advocacy group No Boundaries, echoed the sentiments of Pugh and other reform advocates who argue the attorney general is hampering the will of the city.

“This has all been negotiated by the affected parties,” Kelly said. “Now, we have an outside entity [Sessions] telling us what’s best for our citizens and our community when he has no experience.”

Baltimore is just one of several major cities, including Chicago, Ferguson, Mo., and Seattle, whose law enforcement agencies were found to have practiced unlawful patterns of racial discrimination and excessive force in policing, resulting in government–enforced consent decrees. If an agency declines to make required changes, it risks being sued by the DOJ.

Sessions has voiced skepticism about the effectiveness of such agreements in the past, most recently during his Senate confirmation hearing in January.

“I think there’s concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong,” he said. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness. And we need to be careful before we do that.”

Since 2009, the DOJ has launched 25 investigations into police agencies and has been enforcing 14 consent decrees, as well as some other agreements, The Washington Post reported. Now, reform activists fear Sessions’ latest move will jeopardize the status of agreements that haven’t yet been finalized.

A federal agreement with Chicago’s Police Department is still in the works.

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