Last week a federal judge in Baltimore finalized a reform agreement, known as a consent decree, between the local police department and the Department of Justice (DOJ) despite condemnation and disapproval by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The judge’s approval came despite Sessions’ attempts to delay the decree for at least 30 days so that it could be reviewed. US District Judge James Bredar responded, “The time for negotiating the agreement is over. The only question now is whether the Court needs more time to consider the proposed decree. It does not.”
The finalization was heralded by the city’s mayor and police commissioner as a necessary next step to reform. However, Sessions, who last week ordered the DOJ to review all consent decrees with local police departments, delivered an ominous statement that the decree in Baltimore will “reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.” Sessions accused the agreement of being hastily constructed and criticized the level of oversight as well as the compensation of the monitor charged with ensuring the provisions of the decree are abided by.
The consent decree will take effect immediately and address how police are to interact with the public as well as outlines new training mandates, including in de-escalation tactics. Consent decrees have been found to be largely effective in instituting meaningful reform.
This summer an investigation by the Obama DOJ found that the policies and practices of the Baltimore Police Department systematically violated the civil rights of black residents. In a scathing 163 page report, the DOJ describes how the Baltimore Police Department consistently conducted searches and arrests with little to no probable cause, meticulously buried citizen complaints of racial discrimination, and failed to investigate reports of sexual assault—even at times committing these assaults themselves—as well as a host of other inexcusable offenses.
The DOJ found that “BPD’s Sex Offense Unit often questioned victims in a manner that put the blame for the sexual assault on the victim’s shoulders—for example, with questions suggesting the victims should feel personally responsible for the potential consequences of a criminal report on a suspect or for having engaged in behavior that invited the assault.” The DOJ found evidence that a detective in the Sex Offense Unit described 90 percent of sexual assault allegations as “bullshit” and a prosecutor referred to a victim as a “conniving little whore.”
The Obama DOJ made a point of investigating over two dozen police departments for unconstitutional practices, enforcing 14 consent decrees to initiate widespread change in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri. Civil rights advocates praised Obama’s efforts as improving relationships between community members and law enforcement officers.
But the DOJ under President Trump and Attorney General Sessions appears to be detouring from that route. Sessions’ DOJ has already withdrawn two Obama era civil rights objections. One was the attempt to protect transgender students’ access to the restroom that corresponded with their gender identity as a condition of the educational equity guarantee under Title X. Next, the DOJ withdrew the Obama era objection to Texas’ draconian voter ID law, claiming they no longer believed the law was passed with discriminatory intent.
As a state’s attorney general and as a United States Senator, Jeff Sessions was far from a champion of women’s and civil rights, a fact that made him one of Trump’s most controversial Cabinet nominees. Sessions has not been steadfast in condemning violence against women, voting against the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act because of its expansion to immigrant women, Native American women and college students. Sessions vigorously opposed the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act as well as the Voting Rights Act, calling it “intrusive” while minimizing the voter suppression tactics used in the South.
After tapes were released of then-Presidential candidate Trump gloating that he grabs women by the genitals without consent, Sessions notoriously remarked that he didn’t believe that act of violence legally constituted as sexual assault, a comment that was very concerning to survivors and advocates.
Media Resources: Mother Jones 4/7/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 8/10/16, 8/18/16, 2/28/17, 2/9/17; The Daily Beast 4/7/17