Backsliding on Abusive Police

In Judiciary and Courts, Racism On
- Updated

There is no need to reopen the Obama Justice Department’s painstaking investigations of nearly two dozen police departments accused of widespread abuse, or the court-enforced agreements the department reached requiring cities like Cleveland, Seattle and Ferguson, Mo., to enact reforms. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggested that he might back away from those agreements, he was playing to police officers who have bristled at calls to root out racist and unconstitutional practices that have been well documented by the Justice Department.

On Friday, Mr. Sessions failed to derail one such agreement, known as a consent decree, when a federal judge ignored his request for a delay and signed an agreement on sweeping police reforms that Baltimore had negotiated in the waning days of the Obama administration. After Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American, died of a broken spine in police custody in 2015, a Justice Department investigation uncovered a pattern of policing in African-American neighborhoods so brutal that people were fearful of cooperating with officers.

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The Rise and Fall of Federal Efforts to Curb Police Abuse

ince then, there have been consent decrees in 19 other cities, from little Steubenville, Ohio, and Ferguson, Mo., to Los Angeles, Seattle and, as of Friday, Baltimore. Though widely regarded as a net positive, consent decrees, based on a 1994 statute that gave the federal attorney general the authority to combat systemic constitutional violations, have had varying degrees of success and have fallen in and out of favor, buffeted by political winds.

They were pioneered by President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department, largely rejected by President George W. Bush and vigorously revived by the Obama administration. Now, under President Trump, their future is in doubt. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a review of all federal interventions in law enforcement agencies and tried to delay Baltimore’s new decree.

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