U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is attempting to rebrand the Department of Justice.
No more will it be soft on crime. The coddling of criminals under the Obama administration is over. And there will be less emphasis on consent decrees, which Sessions sees as demoralizing to police officers.
Last week, news broke that Sessions has called for a review of consent decrees with police departments that have been investigated and found to have serious problems in how they serve the people they are sworn to protect.
Sessions is sending signals, but he might be too late. And he probably already knows it. The nation is in a different place now than it was even two years ago in regards to policing.
For that we can thank Black Lives Matter. Its protests focused attention on high-profile police shootings. For those who stayed tuned in, the demonstrations also showed how tensions may seem to spontaneously combust but in reality gain their explosive charge from problems and patterns of injustice that are ignored and left to fester for a long period.
This partly explains why several of the cities currently under consent decrees quickly pushed back. This was the message sent by Cleveland, New Orleans and Ferguson, Mo.: We want to stay engaged in the reforms.
Police officials in Baltimore and Chicago, which haven’t formally signed their agreements, also said they did not want Sessions to disrupt the ongoing work, emphasizing that reforms are in their best interest.
It’s possible, of course, that they are just saying the right things for the cameras. Perhaps these officials secretly hope a Sessions’ Justice Department will cut them some slack.
There are more than 18,000 different police agencies in the nation. Only 12 consent decrees are currently in place. They came in the wake of 25 investigations the DOJ conducted during Obama’s years in office.
During the Obama administration, these investigations sent a firm message about what type of policing would no longer be tolerated. You can bet that many police departments nationwide paid attention to the findings and adjusted their procedures in response. So the impact is far broader than the work implies.
Even more work toward improved community/police relations is accomplished through a lesser-known entity, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. This DOJ program came about during the Clinton years, a time of high crime rates when the ineffectiveness of the War on Drugs was being realized.
What happens to COPS under Sessions remains to be seen. It’s been targeted for elimination by some of Trump’s advisers. The Fraternal Order of Police, a strong supporter of Trump, was not pleased with that prospect. No one likes to lose funding.
The Sessions memo, dated March 31, also called for reviews of all grant-making, technical assistance and training that the DOJ does with police agencies. That will surely include the COPS program, whose work is far less adversarial than consent decrees typically are.
Right now, COPS is managing more than 2,000 active grants worth $1.4 billion with police agencies large and small. The grants fund everything from assisting with hiring of officers and developing anti-drug initiatives to police training and programs to build respect between officers and civilians. A lot of this funding can help prevent the problems that have become evident in the police shooting cases.
Sessions’ March 31 memo maintained that “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe.”
But consent decrees are not designed to punish entire police departments for the errant behavior of a one or even a handful of rogue cops. They are initiated after a comprehensive investigation has found something more ingrained, what is termed a pattern or practice.
This doesn’t mean that honest, well-intentioned police officers don’t exist in departments under consent decrees. They certainly do. Often, findings supporting the negotiation of a consent decree will show how such voices of reason and restraint are silenced.
Nor does a consent decree mean that all of the negative outcomes or even alleged civil rights violations are intentional. In fact, that’s why a decree has to be so comprehensive, on-going and agreed to by both federal officials and the policing agency in question. Entire police systems – which can constitute a myriad of policies, ingrained attitudes and behaviors – do not reform quickly.
And they don’t always do it on their own.
The strong, consistent watch of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice is not only warranted, it’s necessary to guide, assist and if necessary to demand fairness.
Reach Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.