The Department of Justice will “pull back” from using lawsuits to expose systematic abuse of power within local police departments, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a group of state attorneys general on Tuesday.
The promise is the first hard confirmation of the vague opposition to the lawsuits which Sessions indicated during his confirmation hearing.
“We need, so far as we can, to help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness. And I’m afraid we’ve done some of that,” Sessions said in the speech, referring to court-backed consent decrees that the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division uses to convene cooperative reform efforts in cities where police engage in a pattern of abuse. “So we’re going to try to pull back on this.”
The announcement makes clear that Sessions will not initiate new investigations and lawsuits over allegedly abusive cultures within whole police departments. Chicago is the last city where DOJ investigators had completed a report on police culture without striking the formal court-backed agreements that typically followed such investigations under President Obama.
Sessions told reporters he has not read the Chicago report, but dismissed it sight-unseen as “pretty anecdotal.”
For other communities, Sessions’ choice of language may breed further confusion in the short term. About 20 cities around the country are still operating under consent decrees agreed between local cops, community leaders, and Obama-era officials.
It remains to be seen if Sessions will instruct his staff to relax their work on existing consent decrees. The Department of Justice has well over a dozen of the agreements still active. The deals require steady attention from the local and federal officials who are party to them — and are also constantly vulnerable to meddling from elected officials.