The dismay that the neophytes in the Trump Administration elicit tends to follow three stages: alarm at what they say, shock at what they do, and outrage at what they propose to do next. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is no political neophyte—he represented Alabama in the Senate for twenty years—but the pattern still applies. His confirmation hearing included a reminder of an indulgent jest he once made about the Ku Klux Klan. On the Senate floor, Elizabeth Warren was silenced when she tried to read from a letter in which Coretta Scott King stated her concerns about his character. And anger has met his defense of President Trump’s travel bans and immigration crackdowns, and, more recently, his attempts to undermine criminal-justice reform.
As much as anyone in the Trump Administration, Sessions seems eager to eradicate any trace of Barack Obama’s tenure. Last week, he took aim at two Obama Administration initiatives on law enforcement. One established an independent scientific commission to look into faulty forensic practices that can produce unreliable evidence in criminal trials. Sessions said that an internal committee would now handle such matters. The other sought to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Instead, according to the Washington Post, Sessions will work on new policies with a veteran federal prosecutor named Steven H. Cook, who is a longtime enthusiast of the kind of severe drug-war penalties that provoked the mass-incarceration crisis in the first place.
Both measures appear to be part of a larger project: to encourage the harshest approaches to law enforcement. On April 3rd, Sessions instructed the Justice Department to review consent decrees in more than a dozen cities, including Ferguson, Newark, and New Orleans. The department also filed a motion for a ninety-day postponement of a decree worked out with the city of Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody there. That filing came just four days before a scheduled public hearing on the implementation of the decree, and a Maryland federal court denied the motion, stating that to postpone the hearing “would be to unduly burden and inconvenience the Court, the other parties, and, most importantly, the public.” On April 6th, at Baltimore’s U.S. district courthouse, nearly fifty speakers urged Judge James K. Bredar to approve the decree. The next day, he did so.
A consent decree allows the Justice Department to step in when one of the nation’s eighteen thousand law-enforcement departments goes seriously awry. The decrees were created as part of the 1994 crime bill to address situations in which a “pattern or practice” of the police violated citizens’ rights. The authors had in mind the notorious, caught-on-video beating of Rodney King by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department. A report found that repeated failures by the city to address police misconduct, including brutality and racial profiling, had contributed to a climate in which, twenty-five years ago this month, the acquittal of the four officers sparked five days of rioting that left more than fifty people dead.
When a law-enforcement crisis arises, the Justice Department may choose to initiate an investigation—in Baltimore, the police commissioner himself requested one. If the department finds evidence of systematic abuse, it will negotiate an agreement with representatives of the city leadership, the affected communities, and the police. The agreement is submitted to a federal judge for approval, as happened in Baltimore, and a federal monitor is usually appointed to oversee the reforms. Since 1994, seventy police and sheriff’s departments have come under investigation; forty-one entered into reform agreements, including consent decrees. Currently, departments in fifteen cities are under federal oversight. A few weeks ago, in a meeting with civil-rights advocates, Sessions complained that oversight penalized entire departments for the actions of a few officers, but that is not the case: the Justice Department found no systematic abuse in twenty-four of its investigations, and declined to pursue oversight.
The decrees have met with some success: Los Angeles, for example, enacted reforms, including diversification, which substantially changed the way that law enforcement operates in that city, and public approval of the police has risen accordingly. Nevertheless, Sessions has expressed disdain not only for the program but for the very idea that police departments can be systemically flawed. In February, in his first speech as Attorney General, he said that the government needed “to help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness.” Elsewhere, however, he admitted that he had not read recent reports on Ferguson or on Chicago.
In the case of the Chicago Police Department, an investigation found that a virtual academy of worst practices led to the circumstances surrounding the death, in 2014, of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald—who was shot sixteen times by an officer—and a subsequent coverup of the incident. From 2012 through 2015, the C.P.D. paid out two hundred and ten million dollars to settle more than six hundred lawsuits, many of them alleging misconduct. In January, the Justice Department found that officers employed practices that “unnecessarily endanger themselves and others and result in avoidable shootings and other uses of force,” but, despite widespread local support for a consent decree, there is now little likelihood that the government will enforce one.
Sessions’s position is even more tenuous with regard to Baltimore. Last month, Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, announced the indictment of seven officers on racketeering charges for, among other offenses, what he referred to as “robberies by people wearing police uniforms”—seizing money from citizens who had not committed any crime. All this allegedly occurred while the department was under investigation for Freddie Gray’s death. Rosenstein is hardly an anti-police crusader; he is currently awaiting confirmation to be Sessions’s Deputy Attorney General.
Baltimore’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, said that he was “disappointed” by Sessions’s action, adding that the city would benefit from a federal monitor who held its “feet to the fire” on reform. Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, said, “We’re on the road to reform. We’re not getting off.” Just a few months ago, Donald Trump threatened to “send in the Feds” to fix Chicago’s crime problem. To the hypocrisies of his Presidency we may now add this one: the dangers in Chicago are compounded by his Attorney General’s refusal to do just that. If Obama’s criminal-justice reforms do not survive the Trump era, the problems they sought to address certainly will. ♦