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Justice Department To Review All Civil Rights Agreements On Police Conduct

Apr 3, 2017
Originally published on April 4, 2017 5:00 am

The leader of the U.S. Justice Department has ordered federal authorities to emphasize building partnerships with local law enforcement over hard-nosed investigations of them, asking a federal judge in Baltimore to delay a hearing this week on a deal to overhaul the city's troubled police force and casting a cloud over a host of other federal consent decrees that target unconstitutional law enforcement practices.

The new directive by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the bid to reconsider an agreement in Baltimore are the strongest signs yet that the Trump administration not only plans to scale back the number of new investigations it launches into unconstitutional policing, excessive force and other law enforcement misconduct allegations but also the likelihood it will seek to reopen agreements the Obama civil rights unit had already negotiated.

"Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing," Sessions wrote in a memo to department officials and U.S. Attorneys late Monday. "It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies."

In the two-page memo, Sessions urged federal authorities under his command to do more to promote officer safety and morale. He also directed the deputy attorney general and the associate attorney general to review "all department activities—including collaborative investigations and prosecutions" to ensure they follow his lead. "The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe," he added.

But police reform advocates and former Justice Department investigators said the extraordinary change of course by the Trump administration is missing the point. Most of the two dozen police investigations the Obama administration pursued under a law passed after the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles uncovered patterns of brutality and racial discrimination, problems the DOJ attributed to sweeping, systemic problems in local law enforcement agencies, not a few bad apples on the force.

"The request for a delay is alarming and signals a retreat from the Justice Department's commitment to civil rights and public safety in Baltimore," said Vanita Gupta, who ran the civil rights division under President Obama until January. Gupta added that the Baltimore agreement had been the product of extensive input from the city, residents, the police department and a law enforcement union "in order to address serious constitutional violations that had undermined public trust and public safety in the city."

A spokeswoman for the attorney general said Justice Department lawyers are merely asking the judge in Baltimore for more time to review the agreement, considering the new Sessions memo "and the progress toward reform Baltimore has made in the pasts several months." The spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, said more time "will help ensure the best result is achieved for the people of the city."

Local officials in Baltimore, including the mayor and the police commissioner, said they saw no reason to delay the court hearing, scheduled for Thursday, and that they hoped to continue working to build trust between law enforcement and community members there.

In Chicago, where Obama Justice officials released scathing findings about police shortly before they left government, but did not reach an agreement on changes to pursue, the fate of any federal consent decree over policing is very much up in the air. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he could not speak for the U.S. Justice Department, but that he had pledged to advance his own "reforms."

The Sessions memo also raised anew the specter that cities and states whose law enforcement agencies accept federal monies from the Justice Department could see a cut off if they do not adhere to federal laws. The attorney general's new review will cover not only police probes but also federal grant awards, offers of technical assistance and participation in law enforcement task forces. The department has already warned it could slash grant funds to jurisdictions that call themselves "sanctuaries" from federal immigration agents.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is calling for a big change at the Justice Department. He wants federal authorities to approach local police in a different way. Rather than investigate cases of local wrongdoing, Sessions wants to emphasize partnerships with police, so he ordered the Justice Department to review its agreements to overhaul police forces. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is covering this story. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How big a change is this?

JOHNSON: Really big. Remember over the last eight years on this program, we've talked so many times about the Obama Justice Department findings about police in places like Ferguson, Mo., New Orleans, Newark. DOJ back then uncovered patterns of wrongdoing like excessive force, racial discrimination, poor training.

The new Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to stop doing a lot of that digging. He thinks it hurts police morale and public safety. But the attorney general's policy extends far beyond any new investigation, Steve. He's ordered a broad review of agreements DOJ has already struck to overhaul police.

INSKEEP: Like one in Baltimore, I guess.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Just last night, the Justice Department asked a judge to delay a hearing to consider the agreement the Obama team already struck to overhaul police in Baltimore. That hearing had been scheduled for Thursday. The Justice Department wants three more months to think about it, and its court filings cited this new memo by Attorney General Sessions and progress the city has already made in building trust with people who live there.

Problem is, Steve, Baltimore's mayor, a Democrat, and the police commissioner both say they don't want any delay. They want to keep moving forward with these changes. And, Steve, it's not clear yet, but this shift by the Trump Justice Department could also extend to Chicago where the Obama team wrote a scathing report, but no consent agree has been negotiated.

INSKEEP: Carrie, I'm just thinking about checks and balances - federal and state authority and how it's supposed to fit together. You kind of rely on the Justice Department to come in when there's some kind of huge abuse at a local level. Is the Justice Department going to stop doing that at all?

JOHNSON: Well, the attorney general - the new attorney general says he still wants to step in when needed to help local police and to investigate, perhaps, excessive force in serious incidents of wrongdoing, cases where maybe a bad apple or two on a force may have committed a crime. But that's a big shift from what the Obama Justice Department had been doing.

The Obama folks including Vanita Gupta who led the civil rights unit there told me a major retreat is underway. They say they uncovered patterns - systemic patterns across police forces, not just one or two bad apples in places like Chicago and Baltimore and all over the country. Their view is to protect public safety, you need to expose these problems and fix them.

INSKEEP: You use the word systemic. That's got to be a big part of the debate here where the people agree there are big, systematic problems or whether it's just a few individuals that need to be looked at from time to time.

JOHNSON: And when you're talking about enforcing federal law, Democrats and advocates for police reform will tell you there is a federal law on the books passed by Congress after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles that allows the Justice Department to come in and investigate unconstitutional policing in local departments.

INSKEEP: OK, Carrie. Thanks very much as always.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.