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Department of Justice Questions Police Reform Measures

by Countable | 4.5.17

In a memo dated March 31st and released Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all existing Department of Justice (DOJ) police reform measures. The memo reflects the perspective of the new administration, that supporting police officers should be the focus of the DOJ, and that any incidents of misconduct should be addressed individually rather than being a sign of systemic issues.

"The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe."

This perspective diverges from that of the previous administration and Session’s statements call into question the fate of existing consent decrees, as well as pending agreements, between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and over a dozen police departments nationwide.

A consent decree between the DOJ and a police department is a legally binding, voluntary agreement between the two parties which allows for federal court oversight to ensure compliance with federal rules and regulations. Consent decrees focus primarily on issues around use of excessive or deadly force, racial profiling, gender bias and lack of officer accountability. The DOJ has been pursuing consent decrees to guarantee constitutionality in policing since the mid-1990’s, though the number of active consent decrees grew sharply during the Obama administration.

An investigation into the effectiveness of such agreements by the Washington Post and Frontline showed mixed results in terms of their ability to create lasting change. Opponents point to the huge costs of implementing reforms when the agreements last years longer than projected. They also note severe dips in officer morale and loss of staffing as officers move to departments that are not under such scrutiny.

Supporters argue that fundamental change in how the police and community relate to each other is neither easy nor quick, and that internal pushback by officers slows efforts. Cameron McLay, Pittsburgh Police Chief, stated:

"Unless you change the way people feel about their job and start holding themselves responsible … the accountability will last only as long as I do."

But in Prince George’s County Maryland, where the DOJ has initiated two agreements since 1999, both police leaders and community leaders agree that transparency and accountability have improved outcomes, creating lasting working relationships between the department and community groups. Police Chief Mark Magaw maintains, "...both of those agreements have made us better, hands down."

The DOJ itself acknowledges that they do not track ongoing effectiveness of reforms after the agreements are concluded, so they cannot quantify their ongoing impact.

Following the death of Freddie Gray, who died of a spinal cord injury in police custody in 2015, the DOJ conducted a thorough investigation of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). In August 2016 they issued an extensive and blunt report detailing systemic discrimination and unconstitutionality in the work of the BPD. A consent decree was signed in the last months of the Obama administration and is waiting for approval by a federal judge.

The attorney general’s memo, as well a court filing by the DOJ requesting a 90-day pause to allow them to "review and assess" the consent decree has raised concerns from community leaders on both sides of the agreement. Both Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis ‘strongly oppose’ the pause.

"Any interruption in moving forward may have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish," Pugh said.

Leadership of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, however, expressed support for the move and the hopes that the pause would allow time to "really find out what’s going on" with policing in Baltimore.

In Chicago, where an agreement between the DOJ and the police department is pending following an investigation of multiple police shootings of minorities, city leaders remain committed to moving forward with some sort of agreement. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Superintendent Eddie Johnson of the Chicago police issued a joint statement Monday night, stating that the Attorney General’s moves would not alter their plans.

"The reforms we have made over the past year are built on the principles of partnership and trust between our residents and our officers, and they laid the foundation for the 2017 reform plan we outlined just a few weeks ago...Through these ongoing reforms we will ensure our officers have the training and support they need to do a tough job well, we will strengthen the relationship with our residents, and we will make our city a stronger, safer place. Reform is in our self-interest and that is why Chicago has been, is, and always will be committed to reform."

In the end, the issue may be one of resources. Extensive, systemic change of police departments is expensive and may not be able to proceed successfully without federal support. If the Trump administration doesn’t see a systemic problem then there will be no justification for them to commit resources to such long, complex and costly endeavors. Whether local communities will be able to marshal the will and resources to make up the difference is yet to be seen.

Should the DOJ continue pursuing consent decrees with local police departments to provide federal oversight regarding constitutionality in policing? Tell your reps what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr / Creative Commons)

Countable

Written by Countable

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(121)
  • Linda
    04/05/2017
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    As a resident of King County, Wa, I am appalled by Session's announcement. I have seen the positive effects of improvement plans facilitated by federal government in our area. The Republicans seem bent on destroying anything Obama achieved as well as targeting states that encourage progressive ideas and policies that aid those who are disenfranchised. To change the current plans helping to improve police-community relations would be to promote more racism, violence and trouncing civilized, collaborative approaches to problems. Please continue to fight all the proposed regressive ideas.

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  • eanbay
    04/05/2017
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    It is abundantly clear that there is systemic racism in some police departments. Reform does not impugn the good police officers, but without it you will never drive out the "bad actors". Is anyone surprised that Sessions is opposed to reform. One has the sense he won't be happy till we're back to fire hoses and lynching. Sessions own history and rhetoric show that he is absolutely the wrong man for the job he now holds. But this is true across the board with this administration.

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  • Brithowze
    04/05/2017
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    Please do everything within your power to get this known racist, and white supremacist out of any and all public office. Sessions has lied under oath, and should face criminal prosecution.

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  • Denise
    04/05/2017
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    Again the GOP attempting to review and repeal police policies that give citizens some sort of recourse when there is misconduct. Police are people too and can make bad choices. They should be corrected or disciplined for those choices. They should not get a pass just because they are police. The citizens do not get a pass when they commit a crime. The measures of oversight need to remain. You cannot have police policing themselves there needs to be a watchful third eye!

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  • Lesia
    04/05/2017
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    Police are afraid of the public and the public is afraid of the police. This is not a sustainable, positive manner in which to operate. Increased transparency is a must. Police must be held accountable for their errors in judgement. To give authority to a liar and a documented racist in this charged environment is to encourage further deaths and misunderstandings.

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  • Loren
    04/05/2017
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    Militarized police departments have been taking part in the systemic destruction of poor communities and communities of color for centuries. The facts are that only certain crimes are policed and those specific crimes are policed much harder in poor and minority communities. Sessions is a bigot who lied under oath and has no moral authority to govern from his appointment.

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  • Matthew
    04/05/2017
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    To punish communities and their police departments for not enforcing federal immigration law - which many officers agree hinders their work and is not directly required by any law - while simultaneously pushing policy that says it's not the job of the federal government to oversee local law law enforcement - even on issues of civil rights that the constitution outlines is the job of federal government - is blatant hypocrisy. Oppose Jeff Sessions and the threat he poses to our democracy.

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  • Cherilee
    04/05/2017
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    We need reforms. Sessions needs to have citizen concerns and not a racist, bigoted entitlement approach

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  • Shelley
    04/05/2017
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    Listen to a wonderful podcast, Radiolab...recent episodes: Shots Fired. Volusia County Sheriff, Mike Chitwood was remarkable. These reforms are necessary to further train & equip our police forces to recognize both implicit & explicit bias, & deescalate situations grabbing so much (and sometimes too little) media attention. "Bad apples" may be few, but they shine a light on needed reform.

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  • VSB
    04/06/2017
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    Sessions and this administration are wrong. I do not think this view that only individual police actions should be punished is always appropriate. Sometimes there are broader implications that require action and investigation. Please reps - express to Jeff Sessions that this is not a good idea!

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  • C
    04/05/2017
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    The Blue Mafia (fraternal Order of Police) needs to be kept in check. They are not the law, the courts are.

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  • JaneRumpole
    04/06/2017
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    Please push back strongly against Sessions' weakening of DOJ oversight and consent decrees. If he could have his wish, he'd click his ruby heels together and disappear the 13th Amendment.

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  • Christopher
    04/06/2017
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    Sessions definitely needs to go the route Steve Bannon did

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  • Leroy
    04/05/2017
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    There has to be and NEEDs to be a higher level of accountability! If there wasn't evidence of gross mishandling of citizens, the former DOJ would not have had to step in and investigate. The fact that the former DOJ found an overwhelming amount of racially motivated crimes committed by law enforcement further indicates there are problems that need further oversight!

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  • Marty
    04/05/2017
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    I am losing all faith in our Government. Why hasn't Jeff Sessions been investigated and charged with publicly lying to Congress? This sets an extremely low bar for our Country and loses integrity for us world wide. Marty Jones, 89084.

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  • Desiree
    04/05/2017
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    Agree, with others here. This is unacceptable and inappropriate. MoC, I ask you to not support DOJ on this matter.

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  • Deb
    04/05/2017
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    sessions needs to be replaced. He is a racist bigot and his "good ok' southern boy" ideals will set us back 100 years or further.

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  • Lisa
    04/06/2017
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    This is one more example of why Jeff Sessions should not be AG. Unfortunately in some jurisdictions there has been plenty of proof of systemic issues that must be addressed. This does not mean all police officers are bad. Sometimes it is poor training and sometimes people are hired to be police officers that should not be. In many areas since 9/11 there has been a militarization of police departments and I feel that is driving a wedge between some departments and the communities they are sworn to serve. My dad was a career police officer and he agrees with this as well. Hire the right people, train them properly and then hold them accountable.

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  • Mary
    04/06/2017
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    Another incompetent in the Executive Branch of our government!

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  • Noah
    04/06/2017
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    Sessions is completely inaccurate in his evaluation of police reform. Please educate him on the institutionalization of prejudice. He is not fit to be the attorney general, and should be removed.

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