After months of hints, Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled the first concrete action to roll back Obama-era oversight of local police forces on Monday.
Sessions’ team will review each of the 14 active legal agreements between the federal government and city police departments, known as “consent decrees,” with an eye to tweaking the hard-won deals to fit the new administration’s more militant approach to law enforcement.
As part of that review, civil rights lawyers from the Justice Department also asked the judge in charge of enforcing a consent decree in Baltimore to delay the next hearing on that agreement indefinitely.
Baltimore’s deal, the product of nearly two years of investigation, consultation, and broad community engagement, was the final consent decree completed before President Donald Trump was sworn in.
Sessions’ memo announcing the review includes an explicit rejection of the core purpose of consent decrees. The attorney general had previously voiced deep skepticism about the propriety of the federal role in local law enforcement accountability and suggested that it is categorically unfair to criticize police department cultures rather than individual officer actions. But the language in the memo, dated March 31 but released late Monday, goes much further.
“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,” the memo says. “The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate andhonorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe.”
The top-to-bottom review of existing consent decrees, in Baltimore and elsewhere, will be conducted by Sessions’ top two deputies, fellow political appointees of the new president.
The filing in the Baltimore case, by contrast, comes from career civil rights attorneys who are much closer to the ground on the police oversight and reform efforts of recent years. Language in that filing reflects that quite different perspective on the work being ordered by Sessions.
“The Department is working to ensure that [new anti-crime] initiatives effectively dovetail with robust enforcement of federal laws designed to preserve and protect civil rights,” the filing said.
The Baltimore agreement typifies the consent-decree process: After Freddie Gray’s suspicious death in a police van and ensuing civil unrest in the city, federal investigators spent more than a year reviewing data, poring over officers’ casework, riding along with city cops on duty, and soliciting input from community leaders and city residents.
They found rampant civil rights abuses, a culture of harassment and escalation, and numerous shocking examples of officers beating, humiliating, and needlessly strip-searching civilians on the street. The resulting agreement was not some unilateral neutering of local police authority, as Trump and Sessions seem to view police accountability efforts, but a compromise that police themselves played an active role in shaping.
“I want to thank a group of people that will benefit as much as any other group from this consent decree, and that’s the Baltimore Police Department,” Chief Kevin Davis said at the deal’s unveiling in January. “There’s a conversation out there whether or not a crime fight and a consent decree reform effort can exist at the same time. Of course they can.”
Baltimore’s deal and all others struck by the Obama administration will now be subject to a Sessions/Trump veto. Consent decrees are enforced by courts, but Sessions can either instruct his team to formally vacate the deals or simply stop committing staff time to keeping up with how the agreements are playing out on the ground.
Neither of the two people Sessions is tasking with this review have formally taken their posts as yet, though the Judiciary Committee approved their nominations on Monday.
Rod Rosenstein, who has worked at the Department in various capacities since the late 1990s, will head the review once the full Senate approves his nomination as Deputy Attorney General. Rachel Brand, a Federalist Society member and Harvard Law grad like Rosenstein, will assist Rosenstein in the effort after her own confirmation as Associate Attorney General.