Jeff Sessions orders review of Obama-era police reforms

Government agreements prompted by high-profile shootings to be re-examined

US attorney general Jeff Sessions. Photograph: Lawrence Bryant/Reuters

US attorney general Jeff Sessions. Photograph: Lawrence Bryant/Reuters

 

The US attorney general on Monday ordered a nationwide review of all reform agreements with local police departments, placing a key part of Barack Obama’s legacy on criminal justice in jeopardy.

Jeff Sessions signalled in a memo filed to a federal court that “consent decrees” such as those struck in recent years with troubled departments in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, could be scrapped or scaled down.

“It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” Mr Sessions said in the memo.

Mr Sessions said he had instructed senior officials to re-examine all formal agreements between the justice department and police agencies - from training initiatives, to collaborative reform programs, to legal consent decrees - to ensure they fit his series of operating principles for his department.

These include: “The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe.”

Mr Sessions, a conservative who was previously a US senator for Alabama, has frequently accused the Obama administration of unfairly maligning all police because of the use of arguably excessive force by officers in a handful of high-profile lethal cases.

Mr Sessions made clear during his confirmation hearings in Washington in January that he was prepared to weaken legal reform agreements in order to hand authority back to local police chiefs.

Investigations

Consent decrees are court-enforced lists of reforms that are typically struck when justice department civil rights investigators discover a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional policing by a department. A total of 25 such investigations were opened under the Obama administration.

Mr Sessions has repeatedly expressed unease about such agreements, saying he believes the federal government has interfered with local policing too frequently.

Federal officials are currently enforcing 19 agreements with departments, according to a report the department released earlier this year. This includes several reached by the Obama administration with cities such as Cleveland; Newark, New Jersey; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The new memo was filed to court in Maryland in the case of the justice department’s consent decree with police in the city of Baltimore. Attorneys for the justice department asked the court for a 90-day pause in the agreement so it could “review and assess” the plan.

The agreement was reached following severe unrest in the city following the death in April 2015 of Freddie Gray, a 24-year-old black man who died from a broken neck sustained in the back of a Baltimore police van. Baltimore officers had faced a series of allegations of misconduct and brutality in previous years.

The consent decree with Ferguson grew out of the scathing findings of an inquiry prompted by unrest around the fatal police shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014. It demands that the Missouri city overhaul its criminal justice system and refocus its policing on de-escalation and avoiding the use of force.

Changes to consent decrees would need to be proposed in court by justice department officials and approved by a federal judge.

Guardian service