Experts and reporters are criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent comments opposing reform agreements the Obama administration reached with a handful of controversial police departments, saying Sessions’ opposition to the consent decrees has “no basis in fact.”
The Obama administration reached consent decrees with the law enforcement agencies of roughly two dozen cities including Baltimore, MD, Ferguson, MO, and Seattle, WA. The consent decrees were the products “of aggressive efforts by the Obama administration to improve relations between the police and the communities they serve,” as The New York Times noted.
Those actions are now under fire from the new Trump administration. Sessions has “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.” And he has been criticizing them in the media, claiming the consent decrees “can reduce morale of the police officers” and “discourage the proactive policing that keeps our cities safe.”
Sessions’ actions have been applauded by conservative media such as The New York Post and Rush Limbaugh, who praised Sessions for unraveling “the extraconstitutional, extrajudicial behavior of the Obama administration.”
But experts say the opposition to the agreements from the Trump administration and its right-wing media cheerleaders is based on myths.
Vanita Gupta, the head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice from 2014 to 2017 who oversaw investigations resulting in consent decrees, said she hasn’t seen any data “to back anything” Sessions has been saying about the orders.
“The attorney general has said a lot about his views on consent decrees, but I will confess that I have seen no data to back anything he says, either vis-a-vis police morale or crime upticks,” Gupta told Media Matters. “In fact, there is evidence to the contrary in places like Newark where they are entered into their second year of a consent decree. Crime has been going precipitously lower. And other places like Seattle and New Orleans where many crime rates have been going down even as their consent decrees are implemented.
“The other thing that seems striking to me about what is happening right now is that there are only 15 consent decrees in a country with anywhere between 16,000 and 18,000 police departments,” she added. “It seems a lot of hay is being made about a tool that is very judiciously used. It leads one to think about whether they are politicizing the program in a way that both undermines the push for constitutional policing and, frankly, at the end of the day, the rebuilding of trust in communities where there has been such a severe erosion of it, and where consent decrees have been really necessary at producing the kind of systemic reform that they do.”
Reporters on the ground in cities that have been under consent decrees say they have found positive results, with several city leaders warning that stopping the decrees now would get in the way of improvements.
“It doesn’t deter policing or result in additional harm to officers,” said Steve Miletich, a Seattle Times reporter who has covered that city’s consent decree that was implemented in 2012 to address excessive force and discriminatory policing. “The general feeling is that ours is pretty locked in place, largely because the city is fully on board. The police chief is part of that. She has made it clear she is committed to the reform process and finishing the consent decree.”
Asked about Sessions’ claims, Miletich said, “The city disputes that. They are taking the position that we are at a point where we can measure that crime has actually gone down some and police injuries have dropped a little bit.”
In Cleveland, which instituted a consent decree in 2015 to improve staffing levels, equipment, and training in the use of force, reporter Eric Heisig of Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer said, “I don’t think it has affected morale. I haven’t seen a lowering of morale as a result of the reforms.”
He also pointed to praise that Cleveland police received for their work during last year’s Republican convention in the city, which sparked some protests and heated rallies but no police problems.
“The way they were received -- they were present, but they did not appear threatening,” Heisig said about the convention-related policing. “That went a long way to give them a morale boost.”
He said the consent decree “was a factor in that. There had been talk and stories weeks before about how police would handle this.”
As for Sessions’ attempts to change things, Heisig said, “The city, the monitor, the judge have said they do not want to see changes happen as a result of Trump. The judge said in January that he did not want to see a change.”
Among the most-watched consent decrees is in Ferguson, MO, where the shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014 sparked protests, as well as accusations of police abuse.
Since a court-ordered consent decree took effect there in early 2016, reporter Jeremy Kohler of the nearby St. Louis Post-Dispatch says he hasn't seen public criticism of the agreement from either the city or the local police department.
“The city hasn’t complained about the consent decree. The department hasn’t said anything publicly about it making it hard to police,” Kohler said, adding that shortly after his 2017 re-election, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said it would rip the fabric of the community if it were removed.
“I haven’t heard anyone say publicly Ferguson should back out of it or it is unfair since it has been in effect,” Kohler added. “I think it is far enough along that it would be difficult to get rid of it.”
In New Orleans, which has been under a consent decree since 2012, reporter Emily Lane of The Times-Picayune points to a citizens survey done each year that found satisfaction with police is up from 33 percent in 2009 to 64 percent in 2016.
“The [police] union spokespeople at least have been pretty receptive to the changes, most of the changes,” said Jessica Mazzola of The Star-Ledger in Newark, NJ, where a consent decree has been in place since March 2016. “Saying they are anxious to do better for the public. … They have cited a big reduction in crime and violent crime specifically, 2016 over 2015.”
Police experts, meanwhile, say the decrees are a positive tool in most communities that give police a way to improve themselves and work with residents.
“The consent decrees provide for a more direct connection that a change needs to be made,” said Steven Brandl, professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the author of two related books, including The Police in America.
Asked what could happen if they are removed, he said, “The negative is there is one less inducement for police departments to get better, to change.”
Christy E. Lopez, a Georgetown University Law Center professor and former deputy chief of the special litigation section that oversaw police practices for the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under President Obama, agreed.
She said of the attorney general’s comments, “There’s no actual data to support what Sessions is saying about consent decrees. … Sessions is, from everything I understand, behaving in an extremely emotional manner. He is making emotional decisions with no basis in fact and in doing that he is disrespecting people in the Department of Justice.”
Samuel Walker, a retired professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, said of Sessions: “He’s wrong on his basic assumptions. He ignores the positive benefits of consent decrees that have occurred. This is a lawful court order signed by a judge -- the judge is in charge. One party can’t just walk away from it.”