De­part­ing Ses­sions eases lim­its on po­lice


Civil rights lead­ers lashed out Fri­day at Jeff Ses­sions, who in one of his last acts as at­tor­ney gen­eral ap­proved an or­der restrict­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to en­force changes at state and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies ac­cused of abuse.

In a memo re­leased late Thurs­day by the Jus­tice Depart­ment and praised by po­lice or­ga­ni­za­tions, Ses­sions ex­panded the re­quire­ments for court-en­forced “con­sent de­crees” reached with state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties. Ses­sions signed the memo Wed­nes­day, the day he re­signed.

It says that two se­nior po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees at the Jus­tice Depart­ment must ap­prove nearly all fu­ture agree­ments. The de­crees also are to have a “sun­set” pro­vi­sion, lim­it­ing them to no more than three years. And Jus­tice at­tor­neys now must meet ad­di­tional re­quire­ments be­yond es­tab­lish­ing that a po­lice depart­ment re­peat­edly vi­o­lated the Constitution.

Civil rights ad­vo­cates say Ses­sions’s move rolls back progress made un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Dur­ing those years, the Jus­tice Depart­ment opened 25 in­ves­ti­ga­tions into law en­force­ment agen­cies in ci­ties in­clud­ing Chicago, New Or­leans, Cleve­land and Fer­gu­son, Mo., and was en­forc­ing 14 con­sent de­crees and other agree­ments. Af­ter the 2015 death of Fred­die Gray, who suf­fered a spinal cord in­jury while in the cus­tody of Bal­ti­more po­lice, the Jus­tice Depart­ment reached an agree­ment that called for of­fi­cers to be trained in re­solv­ing con­flicts with­out force.

“This memo seals Ses­sions’s legacy as an ob­struc­tion­ist when it comes to ad­vanc­ing jus­tice, pro­mot­ing re­form and pro­tect­ing the rights of vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion,” said Kris­ten Clarke, pres­i­dent and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law.

Vanita Gupta, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civil and Hu­man Rights, called the ac­tion “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’s part­ing act was an­other at­tack on the core mis­sion of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice,” said Gupta, who was head of the depart­ment’s Civil Rights Divi­sion in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “The memo is de­signed to re­strict con­sent de­crees and cre­ates a se­ries of in­creas­ingly higher road­blocks to ren­der them rare and in­ef­fec­tive.”

One of Ses­sions’s first ac­tions, taken in March 2017, shortly af­ter he took of­fice, was to or­der the Jus­tice Depart­ment to con­duct a sweep­ing re­view of all re­form agree­ments with trou­bled po­lice de­part­ments. He said the re­view was nec­es­sary to en­sure that the de­crees did not work against the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s goal of pro­mot­ing of­fi­cer safety and morale while fight­ing vi­o­lent crime.

That move and oth­ers were hailed by po­lice de­part­ments and state and lo­cal of­fi­cers across the coun­try. Chuck Can­ter­bury, the na­tional pres­i­dent of the Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice, also ap­plauded the Ses­sions memo, say­ing that con­sent de­crees hence­forth will give more re­spon­si­bil­ity to lo­cal de­part­ments, in­clude the views of rank-and-file of­fi­cers and be “more col­lab­o­ra­tive.”

Steven H. Cook, a Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial at the Of­fice of Law En­force­ment Af­fairs, said that Ses­sions made clear his view on con­sent de­crees from the time he tes­ti­fied be­fore Congress at his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing in Jan­uary 2017.

“He said we’re go­ing to con­tinue to po­lice the po­lice,” Cook said. “But we’re not go­ing to con­demn the en­tire depart­ment when there’s a sin­gle or cou­ple of wrong­do­ers. That was huge to po­lice de­part­ments that were un­der con­sent de­crees and po­lice de­part­ments that weren’t be­cause they were con­stantly liv­ing in fear they would be next.”

The new con­sent de­cree re­quire­ments per­tain to all civil lit­i­ga­tion against state or lo­cal gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties, not just po­lice agree­ments.

On the day be­fore Pres­i­dent Trump asked Ses­sions to re­sign, Ses­sions again sig­naled his strong sup­port of state and lo­cal po­lice with his last line in a speech to a group of law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

“You can be cer­tain about this: We have your backs — and you have our thanks.”

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