Cities vow to con­tinue dras­tic po­lice re­forms

Jus­tice De­part­ment puts over­sight on hold

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY ANDREA NOBLE

Of­fi­cials in Chicago and Bal­ti­more pledged Tues­day to move for­ward with dras­tic re­forms of their po­lice de­part­ments even af­ter the Jus­tice De­part­ment sig­naled that it may pull back on over­sight of trou­bled law en­force­ment agen­cies.

But in the 23 years since the Jus­tice De­part­ment was given au­thor­ity to in­ves­ti­gate lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies sus­pected of un­con­sti­tu­tional prac­tices, po­lice de­part­ments haven’t al­ways been will­ing par­tic­i­pants in court-stip­u­lated re­form agree­ments, known as con­sent de­crees.

An­a­lysts on po­lice over­sight and de­part­men­tal re­forms say that with­out De­part­ment of Jus­tice in­ter­ven­tion, sys­temic abuses may never be ad­dressed. The Jus­tice De­part­ment of­ten is asked to get in­volved when a de­part­ment does not hold of­fi­cers ac­count­able, said David Har­ris, a po­lice ac­count­abil­ity re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh School of Law.

“It’s not about one bad of­fi­cer. It’s about long­sus­tained pat­terns,” Mr. Har­ris said. “When you have that, you have a sit­u­a­tion where the de­part­ment ei­ther can­not or will not change it­self.”

The Jus­tice De­part­ment at times has re­sorted to le­gal ac­tion to force agen­cies to en­ter agree­ments af­ter the dis­cov­ery of sys­temic abuses, in­clud­ing racial pro­fil­ing or ex­ces­sive use of force.

Such was the case last year in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri. The city be­came the fo­cal point for law en­force­ment re­form move­ments af­ter ri­ots in the wake of the 2014 fa­tal po­lice shoot­ing of Michael Brown, a young black man.

Even when po­lice lead­ers are more re­cep­tive to the prac­tice, an­a­lysts say, the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s ex­pe­ri­ence has helped bring to light prob­lems that oth­er­wise wouldn’t have been ad­dressed.

The D.C. Metropoli­tan Po­lice De­part­ment en­tered an agree­ment in 2001 af­ter Chief Charles H. Ram­sey asked the Jus­tice De­part­ment to ex­am­ine re­ports in­di­cat­ing that of­fi­cers were shoot­ing more civil­ians per capita than any other city po­lice force in the na­tion.

“I do not think all of the re­forms D.C. ac­com­plished would have been ac­com­plished with­out a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion and fed­eral over­sight, and I think both of the chiefs I worked with in D.C. would agree with me,” said Michael R. Bromwich, a lawyer who served as the in­de­pen­dent mon­i­tor over­see­ing the D.C. de­part­ment’s agree­ment on use of force poli­cies, mis­con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions and other mat­ters. “One of the is­sues is get­ting the money that you need to do what you know needs to be done. In a way, [a con­sent de­cree] pro­vides power to the po­lice de­part­ment to get re­sources it has not been pro­vided with.”

He said that when the Jus­tice De­part­ment in­ves­ti­gates po­lice, it gen­er­ally finds “that there has been a fail­ure by the de­part­ment to be ac­count­able.”

Is­su­ing con­sent de­crees be­came a hall­mark of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strat­egy to re­form po­lice agen­cies. Since 2009, the Jus­tice De­part­ment opened 25 in­ves­ti­ga­tions into law en­force­ment agen­cies and over­saw 15 con­sent de­crees.

But the pro­posed Bal­ti­more agree­ment and the find­ings of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Chicago Po­lice De­part­ment were an­nounced in the wan­ing days of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion — leav­ing fi­nal­iza­tion of agree­ments up to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions has ex­pressed skep­ti­cism over the use of con­sent de­crees. On Mon­day, he an­nounced that the Jus­tice De­part­ment would un­der­take a sys­temwide re­view of “ex­ist­ing or con­tem­plated” court-su­per­vised con­sent de­crees with lo­cal po­lice.

Hours af­ter the an­nounce­ment, the Jus­tice De­part­ment re­quested a 90-day post­pone­ment of an up­com­ing hear­ing on the pro­posed agree­ment in­volv­ing the Bal­ti­more Po­lice De­part­ment.

“Lo­cal con­trol and lo­cal ac­count­abil­ity are nec­es­sary for ef­fec­tive lo­cal polic­ing,” Mr. Ses­sions wrote in a two-page memo ex­plain­ing the goals of the re­view, which is to re­set and strengthen re­la­tion­ships with lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies. “It is not the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to man­age non-fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Bal­ti­more Po­lice De­part­ment came un­der fed­eral scru­tiny af­ter un­rest over the death of Fred­die Gray. Now, the Jus­tice De­part­ment is sig­nal­ing that it may aban­don those ef­forts in fa­vor of crack­ing down on vi­o­lent crime.

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