Cities vow to continue drastic police reforms
Justice Department puts oversight on hold
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.”
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.