Attorney General Sessions Signals DOJ Will Not Enforce Federal Civil Rights Laws Against Police


Sessions Places 'Officer Morale' Over the Civil Rights of the Individuals and Communities Local Police Serve

In November, the nation watched in horror a graphic, disturbing video released of a white Chicago police officer shooting a 17-year old Black teen, fatally, 16 times. The teen was Laquan McDonald, and the shooting led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation in Chicago that found a widespread and pervasive culture of excessive police violence, especially against minorities. The City of Chicago in January entered into a consent decree agreement with the DOJ, under then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, to reform its policing practices.

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed the Dept. of Justice to review all Obama-era consent decrees signed with over a dozen local police departments that have patterns of violating civil rights. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Chicago, the Obama Justice Dept. investigated local law enforcement agencies and developed binding agreements to ensure policy, practice, and behavioral reforms are enacted to protect the federal civil rights of the communities these police agencies serve.

But in a two-page memo issued by Trump Attorney General Sessions Monday, all those reform agreements will be reviewed, and possibly altered. Sessions is signaling his Justice Dept. will not actively enforce federal civil rights laws against local law enforcement officers or agencies.

"Law enforcement officers perform uniquely dangerous tasks," the Sessions memo reads, "the Department should help promote officer safety, officer morale, and public respect for their work." 

Sessions also says: "Local control. and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies."

But some law enforcement experts disagree with the Attorney General's point of view.

"In a speech in February, his first as attorney general, he said that the federal government's role should be to 'help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness,'" The New York Times reported Monday. "Mr. Sessions said the agreements were demoralizing to the police and could be generating a rise in violence and murders in some large cities, a contention that has been challenged by many criminologists."

Civil rights experts are disturbed and concerned about constitutional implications.

"This is terrifying," Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, told The Washington Post. Smith served as Chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and oversaw investigations into 23 police departments, including New Orleans, Cleveland and Ferguson. "This raises the question of whether, under the current attorney general, the Department of Justice is going to walk away from its obligation to ensure that law enforcement across the country is following the Constitution."

The Attorney General, rather than accepting police departments can develop unconstitutional patterns of behaviors, which lead to discriminatory and racially biased treatment of citizens, sloughs off blame as merely the "misdeeds of individual bad actors," and states they "should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe."

Vanita Gupta, who led the DOJ's Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, worked on the agreement with the Baltimore Police Dept. After the death of Freddie Gray. She says the Sessions memo "signals a retreat from the Justice Department's commitment to civil rights and public safety in Baltimore."

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