Police reform efforts are under way across the country, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to want to put an end to the Justice Department’s vital role.
It would be helpful if he could offered a detailed critique of “consent decrees,” under which police departments and the U.S. Justice Department work together to review and improve the patterns and practices of troubled agencies, but he hasn’t.
Instead he sees the decrees as unwarranted attacks on law enforcement, and has ordered a review of them. He could have at least waited for the results before passing judgment. But in a memo to staff, he said the “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” police officers overall.
Nobody wants that, and that’s not what is happening.
Sessions sought a delay in the consent decree agreed to by Baltimore. The mayor strongly opposed this intervention, and a federal judge allowed the decree to go forward. The decrees ensure follow through on recommendations.
Fourteen communities have entered into consent decrees after relations between police departments and citizens had badly deteriorated. Leaders of these communities knew they needed objective reviews of their practices and turned to the feds. .
Ferguson, Missouri., was one of them, and the Justice Department report showed that the problems of racial bias went well beyond the death of Michael Brown, which became a flashpoint for activists across the nation.
Seattle’s Police Department entered a consent decree in 2012, after which the use of force by police officers dropped significantly without a corresponding increase in crime. Lesson: Officers were too quick to escalate.
Spokane isn’t under a consent decree, but the city did reach out to the Justice Department to help provide a credible review of the Police Department’s use-of-force practices after the Otto Zehm tragedy. The Justice Department report offered recommendations on training, but it was not as damning as some police critics expected. The report said the department’s use of force was not racially biased, which points to another value of reviews: community perceptions might not match reality.
The Justice Department also echoed a local Use of Force Commission recommendation in saying the Spokane Police Department would benefit from a cultural audit. The city agreed, and the Justice Department performed one. The results were recently revealed and will be studied for areas of improvement.
It makes no sense for a new attorney general to parachute into these delicate situations with generalized suspicions. To borrow a phrase from law enforcement, Sessions didn’t have “probable cause.”
His suspicions might play well politically, given the attacks on police officers in Dallas and elsewhere. But it’s misguided to blame those tragedies on cooperative efforts to improve policing.
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