Out­go­ing AG curbs po­lice con­sent de­crees

City, lo­cal ad­vo­cates watch­ing for changes

Albuquerque Journal - - METRO & NM - BY RYAN BOETEL

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.”

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