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Sweeping Federal Review Could Affect Consent Decrees Nationwide
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a sweeping review of federal agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies, an examination that reflects President Trump's emphasis on law and order and could lead to a retreat on consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide.
In a memorandum dated March 31 and made public Monday, the attorney general directed his staff to look at whether law enforcement programs adhere to principles put forth by the Trump administration, including one declaring that "the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn" the work police officers perform "in keeping American communities safe."
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.
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said late Monday that the city would "strongly oppose any delay in moving forward." Supporters of police reform called on Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the negotiations between Baltimore and the Justice Department, to deny the request, arguing that Mr. Sessions was interfering with the will of the city.
"This has all been negotiated by the affected parties," said Ray Kelly, the president of the No Boundaries Coalition, a citizen advocacy group. Referring to Mr. Sessions, he said, "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 is one of nearly two dozen cities – including Ferguson, Mo.; Cleveland; and Seattle – that were the subject of aggressive efforts by the Obama administration to improve relations between the police and the communities they serve. That effort produced so-called consent decrees with 14 departments.
The broad review announced Monday could threaten some of those decrees if the Justice Department seeks to change its past stance about systematic police abuses in the affected agencies. But the Justice Department would not be able to unilaterally unwind the agreements without court intervention.
Vanita Gupta, who ran the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama and negotiated the Baltimore consent decree, said it was unclear whether Mr. Sessions could withdraw from that agreement, which has not yet been officially approved by a judge.
Noting that Kevin Davis, the Baltimore police commissioner, had expressed strong support for the plan, Ms. Gupta questioned "whether the attorney general is really in sync with law enforcement." She added that Monday's announcement "signals an alarming retreat away from ensuring that police departments engage in constitutional policing."
Beyond Baltimore, the most closely watched decision will come in Chicago, where the Obama administration, on its final day, issued a report that found failures in the Police Department after a series of police shootings of minorities. Negotiations have begun for a possible monitoring agreement, but Mr. Sessions has indicated he thinks the report was shoddy, casting doubt on the prospect of a deal.
In a joint statement on Monday night, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Superintendent Eddie Johnson of the Chicago police said Mr. Sessions's announcement would not alter their own plans, outlined several weeks ago, for police reform in Chicago. "We can only speak for our intentions, we can't speak for the federal government's," they said.
In Baltimore, a majority-black city with a history of tensions between African-Americans and the police, the consent decree grew out of a federal review that followed the unrest in 2015 over the death of a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody.
The review culminated in August, when the Justice Department issued a blistering report that found that the Baltimore police had engaged in a "pattern and practice" of discrimination that systematically violated the civil rights of black residents. In January, days before Mr. Obama left office, Mayor Pugh and the Justice Department signed a broad blueprint for an overhaul.
In its court filings on Monday, the Justice Department noted that the Trump administration had "announced several new initiatives and policies that prioritize combating and preventing violent crime" in response to spikes in violence in cities across the country, including Baltimore.
Mr. Sessions has expressed deep skepticism about the value of consent decrees like the one planned for Baltimore, saying they vilify the police, and he has indicated that he wants to scale them back.
In a speech in February, his first as attorney general, he said that the federal government's role should be to "help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness." Mr. Sessions said the agreements were demoralizing to the police and could be generating a rise in violence and murders in some large cities, a contention that has been challenged by many criminologists.
Kristen Clarke, who leads the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has fought for greater federal oversight of troubled police departments, said the request for a delay in the Baltimore case was deeply troubling.
"Attorney General Jeff Sessions is undermining and obstructing extensive efforts that have been made to promote policing reform in a small set of the most broken police departments in our country," she said.
[Source: By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Eric Lichtblau, The New York Times, Washington, 03Apr17]
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