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As His Final Move in Office, Jeff Sessions Limits Use of Court Settlements to Reform Rotten Police Departments

Sessions was a staunch critic of consent decrees that forced police departments to reform unconstitutional practices.

Erin Scott/Polaris/NewscomErin Scott/Polaris/NewscomAs one of his final moves in office before resigning Wednesday, outgoing Attorney General Jeff Sessions severely limited the Justice Department's ability to enter into court-enforced decrees to reform police departments that have shown a pattern of civil rights violations.

Sessions signed a memo, released by the Justice Department Thursday night, putting in place three new requirements for the department to enter into a so-called consent decree—a settlement between the Justice Department and a local government or agency, monitored for compliance by a judge, that stipulates how it will correct civil rights violations or other issues.

First, the memo orders all proposed consent decrees to be approved by political appointees, such as a deputy attorney general or associate attorney general. Second, proposed decrees must be accompanied by extensive memos justifying their use and cost. And third, all consent decrees must now have a sunset date. Previously, consent decrees were open-ended, terminating when the reforms were deemed completed.

The memo justifies the new rules by saying consent decrees can have a large financial costs for municipal governnments as well as raise federalism concerns.

In a statement, Vanita Gupta, an Obama-era head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, called Sessions' memo "a slap in the face to the dedicated career staff of the department who work tirelessly to enforce our nation's civil rights laws."

"Jeff Sessions' parting act was another attack on the core mission of the Department of Justice," Gupta said. "The memo is designed to restrict consent decrees and creates a series of increasingly higher roadblocks to render them rare and ineffective."

Consent decrees were rarely used until the Obama administration, when the Justice Department launched a record 25 civil rights investigations into unconstitutional policing in such cities as Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson, Missouri.

Those investigations revealed systematic and widespread civil rights abuses by police, including excessive force, unconstitutional searches, and often overt racism. The Justice Department was enforcing 14 consent decrees when Obama left office.

Sessions was a staunch opponent of such court monitoring. He said he hadn't even read the Justice Department's scathing report on the Chicago Police Department. And in numerous public speeches, he complained that they tied the hands of police trying to clean up crime-ridden areas. He blamed the decline in police searches and stops for the sharp increase in murders and violent crime in some major cities, echoing conservative critics who dubbed the phenomenon the "Ferguson effect."

"One of the big things out there that's, I think, causing trouble, and where you see the greatest increase in violence and murders in cities is somehow, some way, we undermined the respect for our police and made, oftentimes, their job more difficult," Sessions said in his first speech after being sworn in as attorney general. "It's not been well-received by them, and we're not seeing the kind of effective, community-based, street-based policing that we found to be so effective in reducing crime."

Sessions almost immediately ordered a review of all ongoing consent decrees and attempted to scuttle those that had yet to be finalized, such as the one in Baltimore.

Sessions' animosity toward federal oversight of police departments ended up defining his tenure as attorney general, from his first day to his last.

In a statement, Kanya Bennett, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said Sessions "has all but eliminated oversight of local law enforcement for abusive policing practices."

"This memo ensures police departments can operate with impunity, and will not be held accountable for trampling on constitutional rights of the people they are meant to serve," she continued. "This is a legacy we cannot afford — least of all our Black and brown communities, subjected to police violence daily."

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  • No Yards Penalty||

    good riddance to the garden gnome.

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    He looks like two characters from LaughIn. How anyone of his generation could take him seriously, I do not know.

  • Jerryskids||

    "One of the big things out there that's, I think, causing trouble, and where you see the greatest increase in violence and murders in cities is somehow, some way, we undermined the respect for our police and made, oftentimes, their job more difficult,"

    I can honestly say I would never want to see a man raped to death by a moose, but I would gladly chip in a few bucks to make it happen if somebody else wanted to see it.

  • Cy||

    It's god's will.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    What a horrible little troll. Any distance between it and the levers of power is not enough.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    CJ is one of my favorite. Not only because covering police abuse is a favorite topic for me, my libertarian equivalent of red meat, but because his Twitter image is the cover of Screaming for Vengeance by Judas Priest.

    He is good people.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    The DOJ has been using consent decrees against local law enforcement agencies for over 20 years. Radley Balko over at The Watch on the Washington Post has well documented that these consent decrees have been a near total(if not total) failure at achieving meaningful reform of local law enforcement practices.

    To stop using a tool that has accomplished nothing useful is no big deal.

    The other side to this is that under no president ever has the DOJ taken a case against a local law enforcement agency to trial for a decision on the merits. If/when that happens, we might see something worthwhile come out of DOJ oversight of local law enforcement. Until that happens, Meh.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Yeah consent decrees are mostly about enriching lawyers and masters. There are school districts that have operated under decrees since the sixties because they find it to their benefit.

  • retiredfire||

    "Consent decrees" and "settlements" are just ways for proggie government agencies and proggie litigants to get things done, that would normally be illegal or that wound never win in a real court case.
    They are used frequently by "environmentalists", "against" government agencies that know they can't do what they want, because they are prohibited, by law, but get away with it by saying it is a "court order".
    Matthew Slyfield: if one of these cases ever went to trial for a decision on the merits, it would lose, big-time, because there would actually be someone to defend the situation, instead of both "sides" conspiring to impliment something only the proggies, and libertarians want - hamstrung police departments.

  • bacchys||

    It's been mostlyl worthless, but this policy will be worse than worthless.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    You ARE aware, aren't you, that there was a pattern of agencies which wanted to do things that were illegal inviting lawsuits by outside groups, which they would then deliberately lose, so as to be ordered by a consent decree to do what they'd wanted to do, but had no legal basis for doing?

    Sessions was putting a stop to that practice, and about time.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Darn, too fast off the post. Read the memo, and it wasn't that general.

    I still don't see this as objectionable: I see no reason lower level employees should be allowed to use consent decrees to implement policy upper management objects to. The memo doesn't rule out consent decrees, it just requires that they be reviewed by somebody higher up the chain.

    Those people are supposed to be setting policy, aren't they?

  • commentguy||

    Enforcing the constitution and eliminating police misbehavior isn't something that should require approval from a politician who's more worried about attack ads from the Fraternal Order of Police than stopping the unlawful harassment and imprisonment of innocent civilians.

  • retiredfire||

    Except, of course, for the fact that the "unlawful harassment and imprisonment of innocent civilians" almost never happens.
    Only addle-brained proggies and libertarians - i.e all of them - think this is going on.

  • bacchys||

    That's a load of crap.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    They're protesting in Times Square. Not this move by Sessions but that Sessions was fired.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    It's amazing, isn't it?

    If there was ever any need for a perfect illustration of the idea of "principals, not principles" in action, this could serve well.

    I'm sure these idiots would support It the child-killing clown if that would somehow damage Trump.

  • creech||

    Yep, 150 progs showed up at the local courthouse yesterday to protest Session's firing. Or was it to protest his replacement? In any case, there weren't any signs that said "Keep the Mueller Probe Going Until it Reaches the Conclusions We Want" but that sure was the tenor of the protest.

  • Flinch||

    They just want to protest Trumps existence. Any act he does [good or bad] will be met with mindless reactionary protest.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Why cant the new AG simply issue a pen and phone decree?

  • Rossami||

    Bennett is overreacting. Yes, there are some very bad police departments out there and yes, they need to be cleaned up. But viewed impartially, there is nothing inherently wrong with these changes to the consent decree process. While police should not be able to abuse with impunity, neither should unelected bureaucrats. Consent decrees should have a sunset date and should have clearly-spelled-out mechanisms for oversight and enforcement. Open-ended consent decrees hold departments hostage long after conditions have changed.

    Sessions was a disaster for the country but that does not mean that everything he did was automatically wrong. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

  • commentguy||

    Can you elaborate, perhaps with specific examples, as to how consent decrees hold responsible and well-behaved departments hostage?

  • bacchys||

    This isn't one of those times.

  • Flinch||

    Consent decrees often go nowhere - they get turned into a lifetime employment gig for certain lawyers and whatever judge gets ahold of process. Case in point: the 4 decade long process that ruined public schools for good in Baton Rouge Louisiana. Did the court fix facilities or get new books for the students? Not really - they got forced bussing that [as usual] went nowhere.

  • LarryA||

    Consent decrees are useless theater anyway. The restrictions apply to beat cops, and occasionally reach as high as the chief.

    City police chiefs are appointed by city councils, and they salute and set their policies based on what the city council wants.

    You want to change the way police in a community treat people? Change the city council.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Why blame Sessions (alone) for another example of authoritarian, bigoted use of power?

    He worked for Trump.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Yep. Beauregard "Jim Crow" Sessions can now go back to the klavern.

  • Rock Lobster||

    Yeah, Sessions is damned sure a moralizing jackass, and on balance it's good that he's gone.

    However, the general thrust of the comments thus far is how awful it is that he constrained the use of consent decrees on his way out.

    Is it seriously everyone's position that federalism doesn't apply here, because federal law enforcement agencies and agents are inherently more virtuous than the hated local po-leece?

    Y'all really think it's a good idea to essentially federalize local law enforcement? Fuck that noise.

  • MarkJ-||

    How about a radical truth bomb? Any police agency that has shown a pattern of civil rights violations should be disbanded. COTUS violations should be taken very seriously.

    Now, I am not talking about leaving a community without police, I am speaking of shitcanning every employee and starting over.

    This kind of thing does not happen in a vacuum, for it to flourish many employees have to be complicit and sorting out the few who might not be would be near impossible. Top to bottom, inside and out, clean house.

    Law enforcement officers are the only government employees who can deny your rights, take your freedom, even take your life without any sort of due process. The highest 5 star General does not have the power that the lowest patrolman from the smallest town has.

    The standards for depts and individual employees must be very, very, high and any violations must be dealt with quickly and ruthlessly.

  • markm23||

    Sessions thinks that revealing police misconduct "undermined the respect for our police". He does not ever let himself think that it's the official misconduct itself that undermines respect for officials. He should never have been given authority higher than a McDonald's assistant manager.

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