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Is Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department Trying to Kill Police Reform in Baltimore?

Jeff Sessions in Hat
Jeff Sessions in Hat
David Rocah,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU of Maryland
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April 5, 2017

UPDATE: As this blog post was being sent to press, the court denied the Justice Department’s request to delay Thursday’s hearing. The court said, “The Government’s motion is untimely. To postpone the public hearing at the eleventh hour would be to unduly burden and inconvenience the Court, the other parties, and, most importantly, the public.”

Why is everyone in Baltimore ready to move forward with police reform except Donald Trump’s Department of Justice?

Last year, in the wake of the killing of Freddie Gray, the Justice Department conducted an in-depth pattern-and-practice investigation of the Baltimore Police Department and released stunning findings documenting the brutal, longstanding, and unconstitutional mistreatment of city residents at the hands of police. Soon after, the Justice Department and the city of Baltimore negotiated a consent decree, whereby the city agreed to a federal court order requiring a detailed police reform process. Throughout, the BPD and the city’s leadership have repeatedly stated that without immediate and strong reforms, the mostly Black and brown communities most brutalized by police have no reason to trust police — undermining public safety.

All the local players — and until recently the Justice Department — agreed that this consent decree is necessary to achieve systemic reform of policing. As part of the agreement, an independent monitor will be selected to supervise progress and keep the parties focused on the timely and effective implementation of the goals. Ideally, the monitor will also act as a bridge between the court, the city, the police department and the communities being policed in order to build trust and to ensure community input and involvement are an integral part of the process. The police chief himself has stated that, without the consent decree, the pace of reform will be slow.

But now, over the objections of the city and the Baltimore police, the Justice Department has requested a 90-day delay to “review and assess” whether the consent decree is consistent with a one-page memo issued by Jeff Sessions on March 31— days after meeting with the National Fraternal Order of Police. The memo instructs Justice Department officials, including those in the Civil Rights Division, that “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.”

The statement by Attorney General Sessions is simply wrong. It is difficult to imagine a more profound abdication of the Justice Department’s legal responsibilities. While it is obviously not the department’s role to conduct the day-to-day management of local police, there is a role for the federal government. In 1994, Congress gave the Justice Department the power to investigate and sue local police departments that engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives individuals of their constitutional rights. This responsibility is a critical tool for reforming the police departments that are the worst abusers of the communities they are supposed to protect.

It is critically important to have the independent and well-resourced oversight that comes from a Justice Department investigation. But it is even more important to have court oversight of the consent decrees that typically follow these investigations, as in Baltimore, to ensure that both the Justice Department and the local jurisdiction are accountable to an independent entity — the judge —for the reforms they have both promised to undertake, despite changes in administration over time. And it equally important to have an independent monitor acting as the court’s eyes and ears to ensure that reforms are implemented effectively and efficiently, ideally in communication and partnership with the policed communities.

To abandon this critical tool because of an ideologically blinkered hostility to federal oversight is not only lawless in itself, it is in direct defiance of the instructions of the American people, acting through Congress.

The Justice Department’s request is a clear sign that the Trump administration is seeking to undo, and walk away from, the consent decree, here in Baltimore and around the country. And it is a slap in the face to the people of Baltimore, who are anxious to move forward to repair a deeply broken system. To abandon litigation addressing findings of rampant constitutional violations reported by the Justice Department itself, and after standing behind those findings and litigation in court this February, is a shameless political move.

The department’s request is particularly reprehensible because it comes days before a long-planned public hearing in which the court will hear directly from Baltimore residents about their views. Public involvement is critical to the success of any police reform effort, and that is especially true in this case. Their concerns have not gone away just because there aren’t marches every day in the streets. We shouldn’t have to wait for the next controversial killing by police to ensure this reform is fully realized in Baltimore. The time is now to move forward with what the Justice Department promised would be a step in the right direction for these communities. We can’t wait.

For these reasons, we join community members in urging the judge to reject this brazen attempt to sabotage police reform, to move forward with the fairness hearing, and to approve the consent decree.

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