Jeff Sessions is right to roll back Justice Department consent decrees

Greg Nash

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Department of Justice to undertake a comprehensive review of its highly politicized police reform initiatives, which include the consent decrees it imposes on local law enforcement agencies.

The directive comes in the wake of controversial Obama-era reports by the DOJ Civil Rights Division which accused police departments in Ferguson, MO, Chicago, Baltimore and other cities of unconstitutional patterns of racial discrimination and excessive force in policing; despite no evidence for federal criminal convictions in support of these reports. In certain cases during the Obama administration, the Justice Department negotiated formal “reform agreements” with cities, usually in the form of these “consent decrees,” which are then implemented by federal courts who maintain tracking data on local law enforcement officers regarding how they do their jobs.

{mosads}Through a memo from AG Sessions, DOJ is instructed to immediately review all “collaborative investigations and prosecutions, grant making, technical assistance and training, compliance reviews, existing or contemplated consent decrees, and task force participation, to ensure public safety.”


Recently, I have been comparing the arrest-to-courtroom procedures of multiple US law enforcement agencies to assist District Attorney Candidate Beth Grossman (R-Philadelphia) with her policy to streamline inefficient procedures to keep more police officers on the street. In doing so, I came into contact with associates in the Seattle Police Department, which is one of the most efficient agencies in one of America’s most liberal cities; who have recently been stymied by the city’s voluntary participation with a DOJ Consent Decree.

Seattle, which has less than 1,500 officers policing a city of 650,000; has had its booking time tripled since the advent of the consent decree; requiring lengthy, obtrusive officer questionnaires that delve far beyond the probable cause necessary for the arrest. As the booking time is tripled, the arresting officer is off the street and not covering their sector, leaving the area more vulnerable to crime.

Another dangerous side effect of the consent decree is related to officer safety. After the DC Metropolitan Police Department entered in their consent decree, the DOJ started to track the drawing of a weapon as a “use of force”, even if the weapon was not used. The officers ‘tracked’ in this regard saw these statistics used in a negative light when promotions or special unit transfers were under consideration.

Therefore, officers who were trained to ready a baton, Taser, OC spray, or firearm as a precautionary measure started to second guess this tactic. In the same time frame, assaults on law enforcement have risen at an alarming rate nationally.

As previously reported, the investigations conducted by DOJ resulting in the scathing reports that led to consent decrees largely failed to be conducted with the legal standard necessary to result in criminal or in many cases, even civil actions.

Furthermore, the timing of the DOJ investigations was often conducted following a highly politicized lawful police action, which caused community outrage. 

Skepticism about the effectiveness of these investigations and consent decrees is obviously shared by AG Sessions, and was discussed at length during his Senate confirmation hearing, when he said in January “I think there is concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong,” Sessions continued by saying “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that.”

Examples of this issue are evident in the DOJ’s 227-page consent decree with the Baltimore City Police Department after “federal monitoring for more than a year revealed systemic deficiencies in training, policies and accountability structures that failed to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively.” 

When reading the reports of the federal monitoring, it is clear that the DOJ investigators in the field had no field law enforcement experience, and used mainly anecdotal evidence from members of a high-crime community which included those facing criminal charges; with little to no independent corroboration.

If systemic corruption or abuse of power was alleged in any of these police agencies, why wasn’t there a criminal investigation conducted by the FBI, like the one conducted into the New Orleans Police Department after major corruption scandals there? If these widespread abuses were investigated and reported by the DOJ, why have no substantiated charges been prosecuted by US Attorneys?

The truth is, these consent decrees have become political statements on law enforcement policy that have robbed high-crime areas of the proactive policing they deserve and pay for with their hard-earned tax dollars.

Furthermore, they have placed a wedge between the DOJ and local law enforcement; who should be partners instead of adversaries in protecting the American public.

Therefore, AG Sessions’ review of these wasteful practices is a welcome sign that Washington will, for the first time in eight years, support the law enforcement officers who risk their lives protecting communities every day.

A. Benjamin Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety and regular contributor to The Hill. He serves as a member of the Pierce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter @PublicSafetySME

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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