DOJ Reconsiders Civil Rights Consent Decrees with Police
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a memo calling for a review of over a dozen federal agreements with local law enforcement agencies that deal with issues of racial profiling and excessive force. The review – which also includes “collaborative investigations and prosecutions, grant making, technical assistance and training, compliance reviews [and] task force participation” – could result in the complete overhaul of existing agreements, or consent decrees. Additionally, the review could influence the direction of a current DOJ investigation into police practices of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
According to Christy Lopez, who led the charge on police investigations under Obama, the DOJ “is signaling it no longer intends to fully support police reform even in consent decrees they are already active in.” However, the Justice Department doesn’t have the authority to halt consent decrees without court approval.
In the memo released earlier this month, Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions justified the impending review by saying “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies” and “the misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn” all police officers and the work they do.
Sessions doubled down on this logic in an op-ed published by USA Today, wherein in he reiterated the latter two points and emphasized the “plague of violence” (as he put it), saying that “consent decrees […] will cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of the criminals.”
According to Sessions, violent crime is on the up and up and that’s partially because arrests are down. However, as pointed out by Alternet and Erin White at AFROPUNK, Sessions’ claims about the rise in crime rates are fabricated; in fact, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, “Today’s crime rate is less than half of what it was in 1991” when crime rates were at their peak. While acknowledging the fact that certain cities experience their own spikes in crime, the report concludes that the national trend is sloping downward toward “historic lows.”
But even if we accept Sessions’ premise that crime levels are increasing, we mustn’t feel obligated to follow through to his conclusion that the only possible remedy is to bolster police repression. The correlation between decreased arrests and increased homicides – as posited by FiveThirtyEight, one of Sessions’ sources – relies on a limited view of the problem. By focusing only on high profile police shootings, such as the murder of Laquan McDonald, and by comparing only two types of data (police activity and crime rates), the analysis offered by FiveThirtyEight ignores potentially vital factors, such as predatory lending, underfunded schools and neighborhoods without substantial food sources. That is to say, in order to attack the “crime problem,” one should consider all the social conditions that make such a problem possible in the first place.
And of course, in all the rhetoric coming from the DOJ, there is one glaring contradiction. In the memo released earlier this month, Sessions claimed that it is not the duty of the federal government to meddle with local (non-federal) law enforcement agencies. So how are we to understand the DOJ’s recent threat to withhold funding from nine jurisdictions if they fail to share information pertaining to the immigration status of city residents?
It seems clear that the DOJ’s policy is not directed by sound reasoning or consistent principles, but by ideological and political motives that could result in the advancement of an already racially oppressive carceral apparatus.
Seen in this light, the decision to review all consent decrees – which help defend against civil rights violations by police officers – can only make things worse for those who suffer disproportionately in our current punitive system.