Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) negotiated several consent decrees—plans for improving the way law enforcement agencies and local judicial systems interact with people of color. Yesterday (April 3), U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions filed a memo directing department officials to review the consent decrees.
In his memo, dated March 31, Sessions says that the federal government should not be the first line of defense in securing the civil and other rights of the people, and says that fostering good relationships with those agencies is key:
The federal government alone cannot successfully address rising crimes rates, secure public safety, protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the public, or implement best practices in policing. These are, first and foremost, tasks for state, local, and tribal law enforcement. By strengthening our longstanding and productive relationships with our law enforcement partners, we will improve public safety for all Americans.
He goes on to say that DOJ officials should work toward promoting “officer safety, officer morale and public respect for their work,” and that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
Meanwhile, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division is charged with “enforc[ing] federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin.” That mission does not exempt law enforcement agencies, and the consent decrees forged with Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson and Newark all arose out of investigations that concluded that local agencies employed discriminatory policing in communities of color.
The memo concludes with a directive to review previously approved consent decrees, those that are currently being considered or drafted, plus grants and training for improving departments:
The deputy attorney general and the associate attorney general are hereby directed to immediately review all department activities including collaborative investigations and prosecutions, grant making, technical assistance and training, compliance reviews, existing or contemplated consent decrees, and task force participation in order to ensure that they fully and effectively promote the principles outlined above. Nothing in this memorandum, however, should be construed to delay or impede any pending criminal or national security investigation or program.
This move is in line with previous statements from Sessions, including his February 2017 speech to members of the National Association of Attorneys General, in which he said that the DOJ would pull back on monitoring and prosecuting local departments that have violated civil liberties.
“This is terrifying,” Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, told The Washington Post. “This raises the question of whether, under the current attorney general, the Department of Justice is going to walk away from its obligation to ensure that law enforcement across the country is following the Constitution.”