WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions Monday ordered a review of all police reform agreements and investigations initiated by the Justice Department, part of an effort to cut back on federal oversight of local law enforcement.
The directive, issued in a two-page memorandum, effectively opens a re-examination of an aggressive effort by the Obama administration to force local police to reform many policies, from the use of deadly force to how officers deal with minority communities.
Under President Obama, the Justice Department opened investigations into more than two dozen police agencies and secured court-enforceable agreements in more than a dozen cases to force changes in local law enforcement policy.
"Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing,'' the Sessions memo stated. "It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.''
The Sessions memo tracks the attorney general's long-stated distrust of the federal government's intervention in local law enforcement operations to seek court-ordered consent decrees and force changes in local policy.
During the Obama administration, federal authorities won high-profile agreements in Ferguson, Mo., following the 2014 police shooting of an 18-year-old man that sparked months of sustained unrest and revealed a deep distrust between the police department and the largely African-American community.
Federal authorities recently reached a similar agreement in Baltimore before the inauguration of President Trump, following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who died in the custody of Baltimore police. Gray's death prompted violent demonstrations across the city. The Justice agreement with the city has since been put on hold.
Sessions' memo also is likely to figure prominently in the resolution of the federal government's investigation into the Chicago Police Department.
In a scathing investigation, Justice officials announced in January that the Chicago department is beset by widespread racial bias, excessive use of force, poor training and feckless oversight of officers accused of misconduct.
“Sadly, our thorough investigation into the Chicago Police Department found that far too many residents of this proud city have not received that kind of policing," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in announcing the findings. "The resulting deficit in trust and accountability is not just bad for residents – it’s also bad for dedicated police officers trying to do their jobs safely and effectively."
The probe in Chicago was launched in December 2015 following the court-ordered release of chilling video that showed a white officer, Jason Van Dyke, fire 16 shots at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald as he appeared to be running away from police during a pursuit.
"The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement agencies perform in keeping American communities safe,'' the attorney general said in the Monday memo.
The civil rights community reacted with disappointment over news of the memo.
National Urban League president Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, said that if Sessions' goal is to reduce violent crime then he is going about it the wrong way. Morial and other civil rights leaders opposed Sessions' nomination but met with him to discuss their views after he was confirmed. Sessions also is going against his obligation to enforce the civil rights laws, Morial told USA TODAY.
"I also believe that the attorney general is making this decision in a vacuum," Morial said. "There's no indication that he’s spoken to mayors or police chiefs or community leaders around the nation. It appears that the only people he's really heard from are the police union officials and I think that’s not the way a decision ought to be made. I think that he owes an obligation to the stakeholders in these individual communities to learn more about these consent decrees."
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the decision "shocking."
"Attorney General Jeff Sessions is undermining and obstructing extensive efforts that have been made to promote policing reform in a small set of the most broken police departments in our country," Clarke said. "In a 163 page report, the Justice Department laid out extensive evidence of unconstitutional policing practices including unlawful stops, searches, and arrests; racial disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests; and use of excessive force," she added of the Baltimore case. "The mayor, the community and the police department all support reform, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the obstacle standing in the way. This administration is making clear its intent to delay and obstruct federal civil rights enforcement across our country."