Under former President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice investigated police departments and used its leverage to reach agreements, called consent decrees, to reform departments that routinely used unconstitutional practices, such as racially biased policing. Those Obama-era police reforms are now imperiled.
The Washington Post reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed his department, in a memo released on Monday, to review consent decrees to ensure they align with President Donald Trump’s law-and-order policy.
Under Obama, the DOJ launched 25 probes into law enforcement agencies nationwide and enforced 14 consent decrees and other agreements. Civil rights advocates are now concerned about the future of police reform.
Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, told The Post that Sessions’ move is “terrifying.”
“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,” he added.
The newspaper noted the timing of Sessions’ order. It was released shortly before the DOJ requested a postponement to a federal court hearing on the department’s agreement with the Baltimore Police Department.
In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in police custody, an Obama Justice Department investigation concluded that Baltimore police regularly violated the constitutional rights of Black residents, through excessive force, as well as unlawful searches and arrests.
The DOJ’s consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department mandates a range of reforms. It was announced Jan. 12 but not finalized through the court.
Reform of the Chicago Police Department is also imperiled by Sessions’ order, as The Chicago Sun Times reported.
A probe of the department found that the Chicago police systemically violated civil rights, especially in the city’s African-American communities. Chicago and the DOJ, then headed by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, were on course to a consent decree in the last week of Obama’s presidency. But under the new administration, there’s a cloud of doubt hanging over meaningful police reform in Chicago.