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.”