Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticized recent efforts to overhaul embattled police departments across the country on Tuesday, telling an audience of law enforcement officials that such consent decrees divert resources from combatting crime and could make cities less safe.
“These decrees are not a silver bullet for solving the tough issues confronting some police departments,” Sessions said during his keynote address to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“They make departments pull scarce resources and personnel away from crime-fighting in order to satisfy the demands of highly paid monitors. I also have grave concerns that some provisions of these decrees reduce the lawful powers of police departments in ways that make cities less safe.”
Consent decrees are court-enforced agreements between police departments and the Department of Justice. The decrees became a hallmark of the Obama administration’s DOJ, implementing them in more than a dozen cities such as Ferguson, Missouri and Cleveland, Ohio.
Sessions has made no secret of his skepticism of consent decrees. He has previously said they unfairly stigmatize and punish police departments on behalf of the actions of a few individuals. Sessions last week released a memo ordering a review of the agreements that were previously reached between the Obama administration’s DOJ and local police departments.
The Trump administration attempted to delay by 90 days a hearing on Baltimore’s consent decree, which was finalized in the last days of the Obama administration. The federal judge in charge of the case denied that request and approved the consent decree last Friday.
“Our Department of Justice agrees with the need to rebuild public confidence in law enforcement through common-sense reforms, such as de-escalation training,” Sessions said on Tuesday.
“But any reforms must be done in a way that respects civil rights, promotes public safety and doesn’t get our Department into the business of running the day-to-day operations of local police departments.”
Yet some police chiefs in recent days have come to the defense of consent decrees and policing reforms, arguing they are integral in reestablishing communities’ trust in law enforcement, particularly after highly publicized police shootings or uses of force.
Seattle’s police department, for instance, reported a significant drop in the amount of use-of-force incidents after implementing its consent decree, and saw no accompanying rise in crime or officer injuries, the Associated Press reported last week.
New Orleans officials, too, sought last week to reassure its residents that its consent decree implemented in 2012 will continue to be enforced. And Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said last Tuesday that Sessions’ request to delay the hearing on the city’s consent decree was a “punch in the gut.”
“We have to continue to stress the necessity of constitutional policing in Baltimore and break the culture of zero-tolerance policing brought to the city many years ago,” Davis said, according to The Washington Post.
Police unions, on the other hand, have praised Sessions’ efforts to review previous agreements, and have argued that consent decrees have been expensive or ineffective, or in some cases implemented too hastily.