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Opinion Jeff Sessions’s plan to undermine police reform — and civil rights

Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has released a new directive to Justice Department lawyers to review consent decrees reached between the Obama administration Justice Department and local police departments to reform systemic police abuses. This is the latest sign of Sessions’s plans to scale back the use of DOJ’s enforcement power to protect civil rights, particularly in the area of police abuse and misconduct.

As such, it has alarmed civil rights advocates. But is likely to thrill elements of Donald Trump’s white nationalist base.

Since Congress authorized the Justice Department to investigate and litigate these kinds of cases in the wake of the 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, Justice has opened 69 investigations and reached 40 reform agreements, according to a report by the Obama Justice Department released at the end of his term. These are known as “pattern-or-practice” cases, meaning that they address systemic abuses, not single instances of abuse committed by a rogue cop.

Sessions has portrayed this program as one of federal overreach. But in the 23-year history of the program DOJ has initiated action against just a tiny fraction of the 18,000 police departments nationwide.

With his new directive, Sessions appears to be hitting the brakes on enforcement of these consent decrees, as they are known, which are agreed to between DOJ and the police departments, after lengthy investigation, and are overseen by the courts, with the goal of reforming ongoing police abuses that violate citizens’ constitutional rights.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks we need to help police get better, not diminish their effectiveness, saying "We're not seeing the kind of effective community-based, street-based policing that we found to be so effective in reducing crime." (Video: Reuters)

In the waning weeks of the Obama administration, the Justice Department entered into an agreement in principle to enact police reforms with the Chicago police department, following a scathing DOJ report documenting how improper training had led to officers’ disproportionate use of excessive and deadly force against black and Latino residents. The Chicago police operated in “a culture in which officers expect to use force and not be questioned about the need for or propriety of that use,” according to former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Now, Sessions is making a priority of rolling back these essential reforms.

Sessions’s moves are telling — but not exactly a surprise, given his track record. Indeed, some of his critics predicted this would likely happen. Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee Under Law, a leading civil rights group, warned in January, before Sessions was confirmed as attorney general, that Sessions’s opposition to the pattern-or-practice tool “threatens to unravel important, resource-intensive work that the Justice Department has driven to propel reform in this area.”

But this history is exactly what thrilled Trump’s white nationalist supporters when he first tapped Sessions for the top law enforcement post in November. Just weeks after Trump’s surprise win, when the alt-right was celebrating at a conference in Washington, several alt-right leaders cited their admiration for Sessions as evidence that Trump was filling Cabinet posts with figures who shared their views.

To buttress this point, they explicitly pointed to his reluctance to accuse the police of misconduct, and his skepticism of black citizens who accuse them of it. Former Klan lawyer Sam Dickson, a supporter of the conference host, the National Policy Institute, told me he hoped as attorney general Sessions would investigate “the large numbers of blacks” who “lied to the police, the media – the ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ stuff.”

While Sessions himself hasn’t been that explicit, his statements do evince a bias toward law enforcement and a suspicion of citizen accounts of constitutional violations. Last week, in a visit with law enforcement officials in St. Louis, close to Ferguson, Mo., where the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown drew national attention to the issue, Sessions cast doubt on citizen reports of police abuse. He told the group he favors “proactive, up-close policing when officers get out of their squad cars and interact with everyone on their beat that builds trust, prevents violent crime, saves lives and creates a good atmosphere.” That, however, is more difficult in “an age of viral videos and targeted killings of police,” he maintained, seeming to suggest that citizens aren’t intimidated by police, but rather that police are intimidated by citizens.

During a meeting with Richmond police earlier last month, Sessions also pressed for a tough-on-crime approach to policing. He pointed to Project Exile — a 1990s-era effort initiated in Richmond and now lauded again by Trump — which has also been adopted by other cities. But it led to inconclusive results in reducing violent crime and has been criticized for its disproportionate impact on black residents.

Questioned about these tactics, though, Sessions dug in. “When you fight crime you have to fight it where it is, and you may have at some point an impact of a racial nature that we hate to see. But if it’s done properly it’s the right thing,” he said. “In other words, if it’s focused fairly and objectively on dangerous criminals then you’re doing the right thing.”

Sessions’s new moves have civil rights advocates fearing the worst: that he could eliminate these crucial reform tools altogether. In recent days, the Justice Department also has asked for a 90-day hold on the implementation of the consent decree agreed to between the Obama Justice Department and the police department in Baltimore, which was precipitated by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, while in police custody.

Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president for policy of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, tells me today she sees the Baltimore delay as an ominous sign. Based on Sessions’s record in the Senate and his refusal “to shed light on what he would do in terms of consent decrees” during his confirmation hearing, his recent action “leads us to say that this is the road that his Justice Department is going down in eliminating and getting rid of consent decrees,” Zirkin said.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Zirkin added, “but this is the road.”