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Booker, Duckworth, Van Hollen, Durbin Push Back Against Attorney General on Consent Decrees

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Credits: United States Senate
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Letter follows Sessions’ memo to high-level Justice Department officials sent last week

WASHINGTON, DC – April 10, 2017 - Today, U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) pushed back against Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to review existing consent decrees with local law enforcement, urging him not to reverse Justice Department policy on the use of consent decrees, pointing to their effectiveness in combatting civil rights abuses and improving public safety.  Consent decrees are formal agreements that the Justice Department negotiates with municipalities to implement systemic reforms in state and local police departments in order to curb civil rights abuses.

The letter comes on the heels of a memo Sessions sent last week ordering the Justice Department to review all consent decrees, throwing into question whether those agreements would remain going forward.

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Last Friday, Sessions doubled-down on that policy with a forceful statement criticizing the approval of a proposed consent decree between Baltimore and the Justice Department.

“We write to express serious concern regarding your recent troubling comments suggesting the Department of Justice may reverse its policy on the use of consent decrees to combat civil rights abuses by state and local police departments,” the lawmakers wrote. “We urge the Justice Department to continue prioritizing the use of consent decrees to combat civil rights abuses by law enforcement when they occur. We must not retreat from proven, effective approaches to correcting systemic practices that undermine the sacred American value of equal justice under law.”

“Officer safety and morale, and appropriate oversight of widespread patterns of civil rights abuses, are not antithetical – they are clearly inextricably linked,” the lawmakers added.

Full text of the letter is below:

April 10, 2017

The Honorable Jeff Sessions

Attorney General

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20530

 

Dear Attorney General Sessions,

We write to express serious concern regarding your recent troubling comments suggesting the Department of Justice may reverse its policy on the use of consent decrees to combat civil rights abuses by state and local police departments. We urge the Justice Department to continue prioritizing the use of consent decrees to combat civil rights abuses by law enforcement when they occur. We must not retreat from proven, effective approaches to correcting systemic practices that undermine the sacred American value of equal justice under law. 

In February, in the first major speech you gave as Attorney General, you vowed to “pull back” on federal suits against state and local police departments for civil rights abuses. We believe that doing so will undermine civil rights oversight, will prove harmful to police-community relations, and will make the jobs of police officers more, not less, difficult. Without a doubt, the vast majority of police officers do their jobs with professionalism and distinction. Combatting civil rights abuses when they occur not only protects the reputation of those police officers, but also fosters greater trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they protect. 

Late last month, in a memorandum to the heads of Justice Department components and United States Attorneys, entitled “Supporting Federal, State, Local and Tribal Law Enforcement,” you ordered Justice Department officials to review “existing or contemplated consent decrees” with police departments under scrutiny for systemic civil rights violations to ensure they are consistent with the Trump Administration’s goals of promoting officer safety and morale. Officer safety and morale, and appropriate oversight of widespread patterns of civil rights abuses, are not antithetical – they are clearly inextricably linked.

There is no doubt that America’s law enforcement community deserves our utmost respect and protection. These brave men and women—who have answered the call to serve—stand on the front lines of the fight to keep the public safe. As Senators with years of public service experience, including many of us who have been state and local officials, we have had the great privilege to witness first-hand how the women and men who wear the badge work hard to keep our communities safe. They risk their lives to serve. They make split-second decisions to keep us safe from harm. And they do their often perilous jobs with honor, duty, and professionalism.

While most police officers do their jobs with the utmost integrity, your recent words and acts raise a specter of uncertainty on whether the Justice Department will appropriately monitor and assist police departments struggling to combat systemic practices that unfairly target minorities. If the Justice Department reverses its policy of aggressively investigating law enforcement civil rights abuses, and initiates or negotiates fewer consent decrees, civil rights violations may go unremedied.

Deemphasizing consent decrees would harm public safety. In 2013, a Justice Department consent decree in New Orleans led to a 28 percent decrease in Taser use by police officers and a 10 percent drop in number of bites from police dogs. In 2012, a Seattle consent decree led to an 18 percent increase in residents approving how police handle traffic stops. A recent Detroit consent decree resulted in a dramatic decrease in fatal officer-involved shootings and uses of force. 

Deemphasizing consent decrees would undermine open government and accountability principles, in part because they provide data collection on stops, uses of force, and other metrics that help police departments improve police practices. Consent decrees can also help correct police actions by ensuring mechanisms are in place to prevent civil rights abuses. 

Deemphasizing police oversight undermines community trust because it signals to Americans— particularly those in communities of color—that law enforcement is above the law. As our chief law enforcement officer, you have a duty to ensure that law enforcement respects the rights of those they protect and serve, which makes law enforcement more just, effective, and safe.

Now is not the time for the Justice Department to abandon efforts to monitor and reform law enforcement practices that harm Americans. With recent high-profile police shootings having a caustic effect on the public’s consciousness, a retreat from oversight of police practices would raise serious questions about the Administration’s commitment to equal justice.

No later than May 15, 2017, we request answers to the following questions:

1.      Please indicate all consent decrees on law enforcement practices that have been agreed to in the past eight years, and provide a brief description of each consent decree, the identity of the parties, the nature of the claims, and the date of the agreement.

2.      Please indicate all pending police reform lawsuits alleging patterns and practices of discrimination that were negotiating consent decrees, which have not been agreed to as of March 20, 2017, and provide a brief description of each case, the identity of the defendants, the nature of the claim, the date of the suit, and the current case status.

Thank you for your attention to these important issues.

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