Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered Justice Department officials this week 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.
Reacting with anger, East Bay Congresswoman Barbara Lee issued a statement:
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has no regard for civil and human rights. The decision to target police reforms that have been negotiated with police departments with a documented history of civil rights violations is reprehensible,” she said.
“Let me be clear, this review marks the first step in the Trump Administration’s misguided ‘law and order’ agenda that will blunt the progress we made on police reform under President Obama’s leadership,” said Congresswoman Lee.
“We simply cannot afford to turn back the clock on reforms that prevent innocent Black women and men from being gunned down in the streets. The time to resist is now.
“As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I will fight to block funding for any effort to thwart the urgent need for police reform.”
Sessions’ 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’ memo could particularly imperil the status of agreements that have yet to be finalized, such as a pending agreement with the Chicago Police Department.
In Oakland, the Justice Department’s new policy could be less directly harmful to the community’s police reform efforts than in other cities across the country, said Rashidah Grinage of the Oakland Coalition for Police Accountability.
“I think it’s going to have more dire ramifications in cities that are more susceptible to federal pressure. In Oakland, just because the feds say something doesn’t mean we jump,” she said.
In addition, Oakland is in a different legal situation than many other cities. Oakland has a negotiated settlement agreement, an agreement that was reached through the federal courts 14 years ago between the city and attorneys representing victims of police brutality.
Unlike many other cities, it is not a consent decree, and the Justice Department “had no hand in it,” she said. “In Oakland, there is a voluntary agreement between plaintiffs’ attorneys and the city.”
Councilmember Desley Brooks, who heads the council’s Public Safety Committee, agreed. “The Negotiated Settlement Agreement (did not go through) the Department of Justice. We should not be impacted by Sessions’ directive,” she said.
Oakland will be impacted, however, by the national changes in the political atmosphere that Sessions represents, Grinage continued.
“This is more about emboldening the police unions, that is the real problem,” she said. “The national guild of police officers supported Trump. I think these unions are going to start challenging (police reforms). We are going to need to fight back with whatever legal weapons we have,” she said.
“We are likely to see a test as soon as Oakland’s new police commission does something significant,” Grinage said. “We-re in for a rough ride for a while.”
In Baltimore, a judge rebuffed the DOJ’s request to delay a scheduled public hearing on proposed reforms that police, local, and federal officials spent months crafting after the death of Freddie Gray. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said the city would “strongly oppose any delay in moving forward.”
Post staff, the Washington Post and the New York Times contributed to this article.