WASHINGTON – Civil rights groups and experts on police reform expressed alarm Tuesday at Attorney General Jeff Sessions' order for a review of more than a dozen federal agreements with troubled police forces that address problems of racial profiling, discrimination and use of excessive force.
The broad review reflects the Trump administration's emphasis on bolstering law and order over investigating allegations of police misconduct. And it could lead to changing or scaling back consent agreements or negotiations underway in several cities, despite Justice Department investigations that uncovered systemic problems in their police departments.
The Justice Department "is signaling it no longer intends to fully support police reform even in consent decrees they are already active in," said Christy Lopez, who led the Justice Department's police investigation efforts under the Obama administration and now is a Georgetown University law professor. "I think it's incredibly cynical."
Lopez noted that Sessions is signaling that the Justice Department has intruded too far into oversight of local policing even as he threatened to withhold federal grants from cities and states that do not help federal agencies locate and arrest immigrants in the country illegally.
Sessions, a critic of federal investigations of local police, wrote in a two-page memo released Monday that the "misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform."
Sessions said he had ordered his two top deputies to review "collaborative investigations and prosecutions, grant making, technical assistance and training, compliance reviews, existing or contemplated consent decrees and task force participation."
The Justice Department has 14 such agreements with local police departments, including a high-profile accord reached with the city of Ferguson, Mo. It was hammered out after days of street protests followed the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in 2014.
Such decrees are reached in court, overseen by a federal judge and stipulate changes that local law enforcement agencies must make in response to a Justice Department investigation.
Department officials sought to downplay the review Sessions has ordered, saying it was normal for a new administration to examine policies and procedures inherited from a previous president.
On Monday, the Justice Department took its first step under Sessions' order by asking a federal judge to pause court proceedings for 90 days involving a proposed consent decree affecting Baltimore's troubled police force.
Baltimore officials and the Justice Department reached the wide-ranging agreement in the waning days of the Obama administration to address a pattern of discrimination and unconstitutional policing.
That investigation was sparked by the 2015 death of an unarmed black man, 25-year-old Freddie Gray, of injuries after he was held in police custody.
But Baltimore's leaders, including its mayor and police commissioner, announced opposition to the proposed pause.
"Any interruption in moving forward may have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish," Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said.