In March 27 Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered Justice Department officials to review reform agreements with troubled police forces nationwide, saying it was necessary to ensure that these pacts do not work against the Trump administration's goals of promoting officer safety and morale while fighting violent crime.
In a two-page memo released Monday, Sessions said agreements reached previously between the department's civil rights division and local police departments — a key legacy of the Obama administration — will be subject to review by his two top deputies, throwing into question whether all of the agreements will stay in place.
The memo was released not long before the department's civil rights lawyers asked a federal judge to postpone until at least the end of June a hearing on a sweeping police reform agreement, known as a consent decree, with the Baltimore Police Department that was announced just days before President Trump took office.
"The Attorney General and the new leadership in the Department are actively developing strategies to support the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country that seek to prevent crime and protect the public," Justice officials said in their filing. "The Department is working to ensure that those initiatives effectively dovetail with robust enforcement of federal laws designed to preserve and protect civil rights."
Sessions has often criticized the effectiveness of consent decrees and has vowed in recent speeches to more strongly support law enforcement.
Since 2009, the Justice Department opened 25 investigations into law enforcement agencies and has been enforcing 14 consent decrees, along with some other agreements. Civil rights advocates fear that Sessions's memo could particularly imperil the status of agreements that have yet to be finalized, such as a pending agreement with the Chicago Police Department.
"This is terrifying," said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who spent five years as the department's chief of special litigation, overseeing investigations into 23 police departments such as New Orleans, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. "This raises the question of whether, under the current attorney general, the Department of Justice is going to walk away from its obligation to ensure that law enforcement across the country is following the Constitution."
The Baltimore agreement, reached after Freddie Gray died in April 2015 following an injury in police custody, calls for changes including training officers on how to resolve conflicts without force. The Justice Department asked for 90 additional days to assess whether the agreement fits with the "directives of the President and the Attorney General," according to the filing Monday evening in U.S District Court of the District of Maryland. U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar had scheduled the public hearing for Thursday.
The filing notes that Baltimore has already made its own progress toward police reform and states that "it may be possible to take these changes into account where appropriate to ensure further compliance while protecting public safety."
Officials who negotiated the agreement criticized the move. Vanita Gupta, former head of the Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, said that "the request for a delay is alarming and signals a retreat from the Justice Department's commitment to civil rights and public safety in Baltimore."
Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh also said she and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis oppose the delay. "Any interruption in moving forward may have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish," Pugh said.
But Gene Ryan, president of the union that represents rank-and-file police officers in Baltimore, said he welcomed the federal government's request. Ryan said his chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police is in favor of reform but worries that the process was hasty.
The agreement reached between Baltimore and the Justice Department was announced in January, coming after a push by Obama administration officials to secure police reform agreements before Trump took office. The department, in a report last year, said the Baltimore police engaged in racially discriminatory policing and used excessive force because of "systemic deficiencies" in the department.
In the blistering report, federal investigators wrote that police in Baltimore, driven by a "legacy of zero tolerance enforcement," conducted stops, searches and arrests that violated the Constitution.
The federal civil rights probe was launched after Gray, 25, died of a spinal cord injury he suffered while in police custody. That episode added Baltimore to the list of cities that saw heated demonstrations erupt following controversial encounters between police and black residents.
After months of negotiations, federal and city officials announced an agreement to improve the department's training, strengthen its responses to sexual assaults and encourage officers to "use force in a manner that avoids unnecessary injury or risk of injury to officers and civilians."
Then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch described the decree, which must be approved by a federal judge, as "binding" and something that "will live on." A day later, Lynch went to Chicago for the release of a sprawling federal investigation into that city's police department that similarly assailed its practices. It's now unclear what will happen with either of the agreements.
Adolphus Pruitt, the president of the St. Louis NAACP, questioned whether the department would also review investigations where officers were not deemed to be at fault.
"We've got just as many times that the Justice Department was called in to look at an incident and they found no probable cause for charges," said Pruitt, who was among the first to call for a Justice Department investigation into the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. "Are they going to go back and look at those? The attorney general wants to re-examine something? Hell, I've got some stuff he can take a look at!"
Pruitt said he fears what the review will signal to communities awaiting reform.
"To the people who told their stories to investigators and cheered the steps toward reforms, it sends a message that the Department of Justice is not going to keep up their end of the deal," Pruitt said.
Lynh Bui contributed to this report.