Outgoing AG curbs police consent decrees
City, local advocates watching for changes
An effort by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to scale back the scope and time of consent decrees for troubled police departments likely won’t have any immediate impact on the police reform effort underway in Albuquerque.
But city officials and local advocates for police reform said they’ll be keeping watch for any potential changes.
Sessions, on his last day in the position Wednesday, issued a seven-page memorandum that, among other things, limited most consent decrees on police departments to three years, provided more oversight on the reform projects by high-ranking U.S. Justice Department officials, and said future consent decrees must have sunset provisions so local governments can more easily come into compliance and end reform processes.
The DOJ issued a letter of findings against Albuquerque in April 2014 that outlined a pattern of excessive force within the department. Albuquerque became one of about two dozen law enforcement agencies across the country during the Obama administration that had to negotiate a consent decree or settlement agreement with the DOJ to correct the patterns and practices found during its investigations.
A settlement agreement was reached in late 2014 and became operational in the summer of 2015.
A spokesperson for the DOJ said that all existing consent decrees, including the one in Albuquerque, would need to go through a process to have “significant modifications to material
terms of a consent decree.” That process includes needing specific approval from numerous DOJ officials in order to make any changes.
Peter Simonson, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico, said he was hopeful the reforms in Albuquerque will continue unchanged.
“We here in Albuquerque have a long ways to go with reform, but the benefits of the consent decree ... are beginning to manifest,” he said. “We’re fortunate that the department is well into a legal agreement with the Department of Justice so that Sessions’ parting shot is not going to have an impact here in New Mexico as far as I can tell. But I think it does a great disservice to communities that are suffering under violence and brutality of officers that are not managing their officers well.”
Sessions, who was forced out of office by President Donald Trump, has been critical of the agreements and consent decrees. In the memo he stressed the financial burden that the reform efforts have on cities.
The city of Albuquerque has budgeted about $2.3 million on police-reform related costs in the current fiscal year.
City officials declined interview requests about the memo, but the city said in a statement that the memo won’t have an immediate impact here.
“As we understand it, the memo does not affect existing settlement agreements, including Albuquerque’s agreement. But we are keeping an eye out for additional guidance from the U.S. Attorney General,” Gilbert Gallegos, a police spokesman, said in a prepared statement.
Shaun Willoughby, the president of the police union, said he read and agreed with much of the memo. But he said the union is still on board with the reform effort.
“I think this has been one of the most painstaking, expensive and intrusive processes that I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “But we’re dedicated to the process and we’re looking forward to being in compliance. We’re constantly all hands on deck trying to achieve that and I don’t think this memo changes that.”
Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told The Washington Post the action was “a slap in the face to the dedicated career staff of the department who work tirelessly to enforce our nation’s civil rights laws and to the communities that depend on that enforcement.”
“Jeff Sessions’ parting act was another attack on the core mission of the Department of Justice,” said Gupta, who was the head of the department’s Civil Rights Division when Albuquerque and the DOJ negotiated the settlement. “The memo is designed to restrict consent decrees and creates a series of increasingly higher roadblocks to render them rare and ineffective.”