U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the country's top law enforcement official, has ordered a sweeping review of federal consent decrees reached with local police departments aimed at improving their relationships with the communities they serve, to see if they hinder tough law enforcement.
Since 2009, when former President Barack Obama was in office, the U.S. Justice Department that Sessions now heads had opened investigations into the practices of 25 law enforcement agencies and was enforcing agreements it reached with 14 of them.
But Sessions, who has often attacked the effectiveness of the decrees reached by Obama law enforcement officials, ordered key aides to review the agreements to see whether they meet the law enforcement aims of President Donald Trump, including one declaring that "the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” the work police officers perform “in keeping American communities safe.”
The agreements reached in recent years with local police departments often came after civil unrest in which largely white police departments were accused of violating the rights of minorities in street confrontations. In some cases, later investigations showed that police had acted properly, while in other instances criminal charges were filed against police officers for the excessive use of force. Some of the criminal cases are still pending in U.S. courts.
Months-long investigations of the police departments often revealed underlying hostility toward minority, often poorer residents in their communities. The consent decrees sought to improve police-community relations through police outreach programs and better training.
Sessions's review, announced Monday, came as the Justice Department sought to delay a court hearing on a proposed consent decree with the Baltimore, Maryland police department in the eastern part of the country. It was a plan developed after street disturbances that stemmed from the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a black man arrested by police. He died a short time later while in police custody. Six police officers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in the incident, but three were acquitted, with the charges against the other three then dropped.
Baltimore officials said they opposed a delay in the court review of the city's consent decree.
The Justice Department said Sessions and "the new leadership... are actively developing strategies to support the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country that seek to prevent crime and protect the public." It said the Justice Department "is working to ensure that those initiatives effectively dovetail with robust enforcement of federal laws designed to preserve and protect civil rights.”