As his last move before resigning as U.S. attorney general in October, former Sen. Jeff Sessions signed a memo making it much more difficult for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to enter into binding court agreements with police departments accused of civil rights violations.
It was a parting shot at Sessions' longtime ideological enemies, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and his department's own Civil Rights Division.
The DOJ first began creating so-called "consent decrees" to rein in rogue police departments in the 1990s, following the Rodney King trial. But they were used sparingly until the Obama era, during which time the DOJ launched a record 25 civil rights investigations into state and local law enforcement agencies. Probes in Baltimore; Chicago; Ferguson, Missouri; and elsewhere revealed excessive force, unconstitutional searches, racial discrimination, and cover-up cultures that protect bad cops.
Sessions loathed the Obama administration's use of consent decrees. He said they impugned the integrity of police, and he blamed the decrees for the dramatic spikes in violent crime seen in many large U.S. cities over the past two years. One of his first acts after taking office was ordering a review of the 14 ongoing consent decrees with various cities.
"There's a clear lesson here: If you want more shootings and more death, then listen to the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, or antifa," Sessions said in a September speech in Alabama.
There are legitimate concerns when the federal government uses the courts to strong-arm local governments, but it has become glaringly obvious in the years since Ferguson that many police departments simply cannot be trusted to police themselves. In a report released in November, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged the Trump administration "to return to vigorous enforcement of constitutional policing." In seven of the 10 cities with the largest reductions in police shootings since 2014, the report found, "one thing they had in common was federal intervention—either through collaborative reform agreements or consent decrees."
A future attorney general in a different administration could overturn the October memo with the same ease with which Sessions enacted it, but by then the momentum behind policing reform will be considerably slowed.
Take, for example, the town of Elkhart, Indiana. When dogged reporting by ProPublica and The South Bend Tribune recently revealed deep-rooted problems in Elkhart's police department, the town's mayor asked the Indiana State Police to investigate. The state police shrugged and said it was the Justice Department's job. And now, thanks to Sessions' parting shot, that means it's no one's job.