In April Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would undertake a sweeping “review” of every consent decree the Department of Justice had agreed to with local police departments across the country under former President Barack Obama. That same month Sessions’ Justice Department found the Seattle Police Department to be in "initial compliance" with an Obama-era consent decree after a 2011 report found that Seattle police had routinely engaged in an excessive use of force.
Established in the aftermath of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, consent decrees allow the Justice Department’s civil rights division to sue local police departments that have been found to have “a pattern and practice” of violating people’s rights or using excessive force. A Justice Department 2011 consent decree noted that Seattle police officers routinely “escalate situations and use unnecessary or excessive force when arresting individuals for minor offenses. This trend is pronounced in encounters with persons with mental illnesses or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”
Despite the Justice Department's April assessment that the Seattle police force is on the path “to full and effective compliance,” this past Sunday two Seattle police officers opened fire on a 30-year-old pregnant mother of three who called authorities to report a robbery at her home. Initial reports indicate that the responding officers knew of Charleena Lyles’ struggles with mental health, yet failed to follow the protocol established by the police department under the terms of the federal consent decree.
There are clear indications that the reforms put in place under Obama-era consent decrees have resulted in significant decreases in use of force and overall crime rates. That is likely why in April a federal judge approved the consent decree between the Justice Department and Baltimore's Police Department — over Sessions' forceful objections. (City officials had sued in order to allow the Obama-era consent decree with the federal government to go forward.) Lyles’ shooting death calls into question Sessions’ rush to shut down an admittedly imperfect program that nonetheless has led to notable progress.
On Tuesday Sessions announced a new crime-fighting program in 12 cities. But he left out Baltimore. "Our nation's violent crime rate is rising," Sessions declared while announcing the program at the National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety — only miles away from Baltimore. "In many of our urban areas, this increase is staggering."
Yet in April Sessions had vigorously opposed consent decrees and Baltimore's in particular. "The citizens of Baltimore deserve to see a real and lasting reduction in the fast-rising violent crime threatening their city," he said then.
A former U.S. attorney in Alabama, Sessions has long been a fierce opponent of federal oversight of local police forces. Writing the foreword for a 2008 report by the Alabama Policy Institute, Sessions argued that “consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end run around the democratic process. Sessions continued: “One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees.”
During his April speech announcing his intention to end consent decrees, Sessions said that such agreements meant to improve local policing — often in response to discriminatory practices — “can reduce morale of the police officers.” That same month he told right-wing radio host Howie Carr that “every place these decrees and . . . some of these investigations have gone forward, we’ve seen too often big crime increases. . . . Murder doubling and things of that nature.”
According to the Brennan Center of Justice at New York University School of Law, however, the overall crime rate fell for the 14th year in a row in 2015 and preliminary data suggests that crime rose nationwide only about 1 percent in 2016. Furthermore, some cities currently under consent decrees, including Seattle, saw crime rates drop last year.
Even as Sessions made his unsupported claims about a rise in urban crime on Tuesday, a report from the Justice Department's inspector general found that Obama-era “smart-on-crime” reforms, allowing more flexibility and discretion in the sentencing of criminals, had proved effective.
When recent court decisions like the federal case in Baltimore, and declining crime rates and tragic police brutality incidents are taken into account, they suggest that Jeff Sessions’ ideas on crime are dead wrong.