From the presidential campaign to the Oval Office, the Trump administration has made it clear that the next four years will be a pro-police presidency. During the transition, topics on the White House website such as “Civil Rights” were replaced with “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community.”
And on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions furthered this pro-police agenda, calling for an immediate “review all Department activities,” which includes contemplating undoing consent decrees.
The decision casts a shadow on potential consent decrees and pacts made under President Barack Obama between the Justice Department and police departments, including Chicago’s beleaguered law enforcement.
To say the least, this is very bad news for Black and brown folks. Without probes in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson, and others, we would not know about rampant police misconduct. When officers are allowed to police themselves, we end up with reports that show recurring excessive force in Chicago or a pattern and practice of racial discrimination and economic plundering of Ferguson’s African American neighborhoods.
The systemic maladies are often not glaringly obvious to those outside of these cities, and often involve deep investigation into mountains of police reports, citizen complaints, tickets, etc. They give law enforcement comprehensive recommendations on how to better serve their communities (including better data collection, improving transparency with the public, responding to complaints, reprimanding officer, and building training programs, etc.).
Without these reports, deep structural racism and classism will continue to thrive unchecked, continuing to sow a deep mistrust between police and the Black and Brown communities.
In short, consent decrees are an important way to promote transparency and hold law enforcement accountable. So, while I suspect Sessions will likely end up reneging on ongoing Justice Department probes initiated under Obama, he is pouring fuel on the fire of civil rights resistance.
In the context of the police reform, consent decrees involve the Justice Department working with a particular police department to correct finding systemic issues within it (though legally, this is not an admission of guilt by the department). During the Obama administration, the Department of Justice opened 25 investigations that resulted in 14 consent decrees.
Sessions has made it known that he is against consent decrees. In a 2008 paper, he warned that consent decrees were potentially “dangerous” and that they “constitute an end run around the democratic process.” This latest memo reaffirms this belief, that police departments don’t have systemic issues, but are rather smeared by “the misdeeds of individual bad actors.” As the Republican Party has moved far to the extreme right in recent years, this type of rationale is a softer version of stating that investigating police departments is inherently anti-police.
Proponents of civil rights and social justice will be alarmed by this memo. Historically, this type of emphasis on local rights without federal interference is a cover to allow police to operate with little oversight. As long places like Chicago don’t have too many high-profile cases like the shooting of LaQuan McDonald, and don’t come on the national public radar, this administration’s stance is to give the responsibility of accountability back to the police. So under the guise of plausible deniability, Sessions has all but said that the Trump-era Justice Department won’t be further investigating law enforcement agencies for widespread misconduct or pursuing new consent decrees.
Meanwhile, as I have said before, Black and brown communities across the country will continue to ask, what about the apple tree, while rejecting bad apple logic.
Joshua Adams is a writer and arts & culture journalist from Chicago. He holds a B.A. in African-American Studies from the University of Virginia and a M.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California. His writings often explain current and historical cultural phenomena through personal narratives. Follow him on Twitter at @JournoJoshua.