Attorney General Sessions’ ‘Radical Step’ Could Make President Obama’s Police Reforms Disappear

The attorney general has ordered a review of mandatory reform programs at troubled police departments and has the power to do away with them entirely.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

The Justice Department is revisiting Obama’s police reform efforts, poised to undercut a major part of his legacy and reduce federal pressure on local police departments.

There’s no guarantee as to what exactly will change, or how fast, but as the department reviews agreements it made with troubled police departments during the Obama administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions could reverse policies that civil rights advocates praised and police unions decried. That could impact police departments from Albuquerque to Baltimore.

Chiraag Bains, who was senior counsel in the Justice Department’s civil rights division during Obama’s presidency, told The Daily Beast Sessions could move to lift some or all of the requirements that court-enforced reform programs—called consent decrees—put on local police departments.

“I thought stepping back from the consent decree in Baltimore would be a radical step—it is a radical step,” he said. “That makes me question what else they’re willing to do.”

When the Justice Department announced the review Monday evening, it also asked a federal judge for more time to revisit an agreement with Baltimore City, which is started negotiating with the feds after the death of Freddie Gray.

Bains worked on the Civil Rights Division’s investigation of the Ferguson police department after the death of Michael Brown. He said if the Justice Department didn’t want to go as far as asking federal judges to lift the consent decrees currently in place on 14 cities around the country, he could signal to them that he wouldn’t enforce those decrees as strictly as his predecessor would have.

“What happened last night shows the DOJ is beginning to step away from systemic police reform,” he said.

Consent decrees are powerful because city officials run the risk of being held in contempt of court if they violate them. To be held in contempt, the Justice Department would typically have to file a motion for contempt with the judge overseeing the decree. Bains said Sessions’s move could signal that the Justice Department may give police departments and city officials more leeway before taking that step—making their efforts to push for reform less exacting.

What’s most likely is that the Justice Department will look to change the requirements of various consent decrees. Consent decrees typically come with built-in amending processes if one or both parties agree the court order needs to change. Consent decrees could be amended, for instance, to require less paperwork or less data collection on traffic stops. The fact that Sessions is subjecting all the consent decrees to review means changes along those lines are likely.

Many civil rights advocates argue that only court orders can put enough sustained pressure on police departments to create reform. Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Omaha, said cities that have gone through this process often see improvements.

“They’re not perfect,” he said. “There has been backsliding in some, particularly Pittsburgh. But most of them are better than they were beforehand, and that’s a major achievement.”

One of those cities is Newark, New Jersey. Sen. Cory Booker, formerly the city’s mayor, criticized Sessions’s move, citing Newark’s experience under a consent decree.

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“I’m deeply concerned that Attorney General Sessions’ announcement for a Department of Justice review of federal civil rights agreements with law enforcement would undermine the principle of equal justice for all Americans,” he said in a statement. “I fear that this announcement paves the way for a retreat from accountability and oversight of allegations of systemic civil rights abuses.”

But skeptics of consent decrees—notably, police unions—argue they cost too much, hurt officer morale, and don’t work. Chuck Canterbury, who heads the Fraternal Order of Police—the union representing rank-and-file police officers—told The Daily Beast that his group is pleased about Sessions’s potential changes.

Canterbury’s 340,000-member union backed Trump’s presidential bid. And he sat by the president when he held a listening session at the White House last week for the union.

“We’re very optimistic with his approach,” he said.

He added that his organization wants the Justice Department to put less pressure on local police—something he expects from Sessions.

“We think the Justice Department should be an agency that collaborates rather than dictates,” he said.

And he said he believes DOJ investigations of police departments are sometimes unfair.

“You judge the bad actors, you don’t judge where they work,” he said. “Because one officer does something wrong, you don’t judge the entire police department based on that action.”

In Baltimore, there may be less hope.

“I’m not the most optimistic person that a consent decree would make any significant changes,” said Ericka Alston-Buck, the executive director of the Kids Safe Zone, an area for kids located two blocks from Gray’s initial arrest.

“I think that changes in the police system are almost a Band-Aid to what’s really the core issue,” she continued. “If we had jobs, affordable housing and access to education, I guarantee that our crime rate would be lower.”

And Tonette McFadden, who works at a methadone clinic in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, said residents might not be particularly concerned either way.

“I believe that once the decree is put into action, the good police will be hesitant to do their jobs because of the decree, so I don’t think the community wins either way,” she said. “The solution does lie elsewhere. The police are just a small fraction of what ails our community.

“Most community members don’t understand or believe it will impact us at all,” she added. “A lot of community members don’t really have any hope in the justice system.”

—with additional reporting by Annalies Winny