The Trump administration’s suggestion that it may ease federal oversight of police departments was greeted with praise from police unions but pushback from local law enforcement leaders, who pledged to continue pressing for reforms amid intense scrutiny of fatal shootings by police.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a memo made public this week, promised that his Justice Department will back police officers and support civil rights, ordering his top deputies to review reform agreements to make sure they abide by those goals. Echoing his prior criticism of these pacts, Sessions said the federal government should not “manage non-federal law enforcement agencies” and that “the misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine” all law enforcement.
Local leaders in Baltimore and Chicago, two cities where Justice Department probes have decried police practices, quickly moved to say they will continue reform efforts no matter what the federal government does.
In Baltimore, where Justice Department lawyers sought to postpone a Thursday public hearing on one such proposed agreement, known as a consent decree, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis called the requested delay a “punch in the gut.” A federal judge on Wednesday denied the request, saying the hearing would go on.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) said in a joint statement that “reform is in our self-interest and that is why Chicago has been, is, and always will be committed to reform.” They did not directly address what the Justice Department’s review could mean for a potential consent decree there.
At the same time, unions in both cities said they welcomed Sessions’s move.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said members of the major union had met with President Trump and Sessions days before the memo was signed and conveyed their view that “oversight isn’t being used correctly in the context of the consent decree.”
Pasco said federal civil rights investigations “looked at good policing and saw overly aggressive policing. They looked at stops being overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods as unfair, but that’s where the crime is.”
In recent years, increased scrutiny has been placed on policing across the country following the controversial deaths of black men in encounters with officers, including the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the death of Freddie Gray after suffering a severe neck injury in a Baltimore police van.
Demonstrations that followed led to changes in many departments, with prominent policing leaders pushing for training in how to de-escalate tense situations and to help officers recognize potential bias. President Barack Obama created a panel to recommend good policing practices, and his Justice Department aggressively conducted civil rights investigations of potentially troubled departments.
The Trump administration has said it would make fighting violent crime a priority and decried what it sees as a lack of support for police officers. Sessions wrote in his memo that one of the Justice Department’s goals under the new administration is to “help promote officer safety, officer morale, and public respect for their work.”
Sessions has been a longtime critic of court-enforced consent agreements, calling them “dangerous.” His memo called for reviews of “existing or contemplated consent decrees” — which would extend to the decree in Baltimore, which was signed by federal and local officials but not by a judge, as well as any decree that could emerge in Chicago.
Dean C. Angelo Sr., president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, who had criticized the federal review pillorying that city’s police practices and supports giving it a fresh look, said he stopped worrying about a consent decree after Trump’s election in November.
“I wasn’t all that concerned that a consent decree was going to occur, and I believe this helps reinforce that,” Angelo said. “Taking care of your own agency and your own needs is something I believe the attorney general has not only stated in the past but restates here.”
Police leaders and experts said no matter what happens with particular consent decrees, they believe a broader effort to reform policing practices will continue. They said departments have recognized they need to mend fractured relationships with their communities.
“In the post-Ferguson environment, there is so much more attention to those issues, I don’t think it’s going to simply slide into the night,” Ronal W. Serpas, a former police superintendent in New Orleans and police chief in Nashville, said Tuesday.
While in New Orleans, Serpas oversaw the department as it was being investigated by the Justice Department’s civil rights division, and he signed the 2013 consent decree still in effect between that city and the federal government.
Consent decrees give departments “time and breathing space” to enact reforms and change their cultures, Serpas said. He said this was true of New Orleans, where he took over the police force in 2010 and retired in 2014.
“The police department had essentially come off the tracks,” he said of the New Orleans police force after Hurricane Katrina. “I have been a supporter of the consent decree in New Orleans since it happened and still am.”
But advocates for reform worry that the Justice Department’s stance could delay reforms and “destroy the trust that has built up” in the community, said Rebecca Nagle, co-director of a resident-led advocacy group in Baltimore.
Sessions’s memo left unsaid what would happen to consent decrees already in place and approved by judges. In some of those places, including Seattle and New Orleans, officials said their decrees would be unchanged.
Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum think tank backed by many big city chiefs, said it takes local policing many years to change directions, “but once they change, it’s hard to stop that direction.
“The Justice Department has a role in the conversation,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s going to be that local police department that decides policies and training. And if we’ve learned nothing else the last two years, there are better ways to do things.”
Wexler said some cities have welcomed consent decrees because they provided them with training and funding their police departments couldn’t get when they were floundering. He also noted that out of 18,000 police departments in the United States, only 25 were under federal investigation.
Terry Cunningham, the former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, noted that many departments that proactively launched reforms to use-of-force and other policies have found the changes to be positive.
From that group’s view, he said, “a lot of the policy reforms we’ve seen in the last 10 years were necessary and appropriate to the profession.”