Trump’s Justice Department Moves to Dial Back Obama Police Reforms

On Monday night, the attorney general took his first big step to pull back the previous administration’s scrutiny and oversight of local police departments.

Mark Wilson

Early in the evening on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department sent an important signal to police officers around the country: Their relationship with Washington is going to change. During the Obama administration, Justice took unprecedented steps to push troubled police departments, like those in Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, to change their practices. Now, with Sessions at the helm, its approach will be different.

At about 7 p.m. on Monday, Justice Department attorneys asked a federal judge to give them 90 more days to negotiate an agreement designed to keep the Baltimore Police Department from violating residents’ civil rights.

The DOJ and the city first made that agreement—which isn’t finalized—when Loretta Lynch was Attorney General, in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. That initial agreement, announced just a week before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, would have had a community oversight task force and an independent federal monitor keep tabs on the department. It also would have mandated that officers receive instruction about implicit bias, as NPR reported at the time.

In a court filing, the DOJ lawyers said any court-enforced agreements must “promote officer safety and morale” and respect local control of law enforcement, while protecting citizens’ safety and civil rights. The attorneys also said consent decrees shouldn’t hinder efforts to recruit new officers—suggesting that Baltimore’s might have that effect.

The federal judge overseeing the negotiations could ignore the DOJ’s new request and sign off on the agreement as it was originally negotiated under Lynch. But regardless, the signal from Main Justice is clear: Trump’s DOJ will intervene less, and differently, in the inner workings of local police departments. With this filing, changes are in motion.

Vanita Gupta, who helmed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for the final two years of Obama’s presidency and worked to negotiate the Baltimore agreement, said Sessions’ changes could hurt the city.

“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,” she said in a statement. “This is a document that was cooperatively negotiated by career DOJ lawyers with the City, following extensive input of community members, the FOP, and the BPD, in order to address serious constitutional violations that had undermined trust and public safety in the city.”

The new filing cited a memo from Attorney General Sessions dated March 31. That memo, released publicly just two hours before the Baltimore filing, went to U.S. Attorneys and the heads of the Justice Department’s different sections. It directed its recipients to “review all Department activities” to make sure they promote police morale and help bolster public respect for officers, while protecting Americans’ civil rights.

“Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing,” the memo read. “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”

Sessions then directed his subordinates to review all DOJ activities, including current and contemplated court-enforced agreements with police departments, to be sure they further those goals.

The DOJ lawyers cited that memo in their filing about the Baltimore consent decree.

During Obama’s presidency, the Justice Department took steps to significantly increase federal oversight of local police departments. A string of high-profile shootings of young African Americans by police officers generated significant attention in the DOJ’s efforts to improve relations between communities of color and police. The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division investigated a number of police departments, including those in Ferguson and Chicago. After investigations, the department negotiated court-enforced agreements with some of those cities—called consent decrees—and had federal judges sign off on them, giving them the force of law.

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Civil rights advocates praised those efforts as essential to holding local police departments accountable. They also argued that without DOJ oversight, departments wouldn’t reform themselves. But many conservatives—notably Heather Mac Donald, of the Manhattan Institute—argued these agreements were part of Obama’s “War on Cops,” stigmatizing police officers as racist predators. Mac Donald and other critics of consent decrees also argue that there’s scant data showing that departments who enter them actually improve—a charge supporters of consent decrees say is a reason to increase research, but not to roll back oversight.

During his Senate confirmation hearing to be attorney general, Sessions also expressed skepticism about the value of consent decrees.

“I think there is concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that.”

As Attorney General, Sessions is now acting on those concerns. And things are changing.