Officials in Baltimore and Chicago are ready to go ahead with police reforms despite signals that the Trump Administration is willing to forgo pending federal agreements that would enforce changes.
In a recent memo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the review of all Department of Justice activities to ensure they promote the safety of the community and police officers and that the “misdeeds of individual bad actors” do not “impugn or undermine” the work of local departments, among other stated principles.
The activities under review include both existing and expected consent decrees — police reform agreements enforced by a judge — between the feds and local police.
The memo was released alongside a request from Department of Justice attorneys, who asked for a 90-day delay in a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department so that they could assess whether the agreement entered into under President Obama aligns with the new Administration’s goals.
Calls for change in Baltimore grew in the wake of 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. The deaths of black men and boys at the hands of police led to growing calls for change and a slew of agreements under the Obama Administration, but the Trump Administration has signaled that could change.
“The Attorney General and the new leadership in the Department are actively developing strategies to support the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country that seek to prevent crime and protect the public,” a Department of Justice statement said, adding that more time will help them achieve the best result for Baltimore residents.
But city officials have come out against the proposed pause, which a federal judge has yet to OK. In a statement issued Monday, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said she and the Police Commissioner “strongly oppose” a delay.
“Any interruption in moving forward may have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish,” Pugh said.
In Chicago, where an investigation by the Department of Justice found officers in the city had acted with a “pattern and practice of excessive force,” city officials have said they also plan to continue pursuing reform. In January, the Department of Justice and the city agreed to work together to create a consent decree that would address the civil rights abuses the investigation brought to light, but the process is only in the beginning stages. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a statement that the city remains committed to reform.
“We can only speak for our intentions, we can’t speak for the federal government’s,” the statement reads. “Reform is in our self-interest and that is why Chicago has been, is, and always will be committed to reform.”
The Obama Administration made pursuing police reform a priority, especially given a spate of high profile officer-involved shootings of black people, including Mike Brown in Missouri, Laquan McDonald in Chicago, as well as Gray’s death. Obama’s Justice Department opened 25 investigations into law enforcement agencies. Over a dozen consent decrees are currently being enforced across the U.S., including in Seattle; Ferguson, Mo.; and Cleveland.
Officials in those cities are already working to comply with the outlines of the agreements. In Seattle, City Attorney Pete Holmes told Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Sessions’ Justice Department “can’t undo the consent decree” in his city. Mayor Ed Murray recently laid out plans for additional police oversight, including the establishment of a permanent Community Police Commission.
Compliance is off to a slow start in Ferguson, where there are more than 300 actions the city must take under the agreement. The pace has frustrated activists, but city officials are happy there has been some progress.
While the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP has denounced Session’s call for review, the city’s Police Patrolman’s Association welcomed it, Cleveland19 reports.. “We look forward to the results of Attorney General Sessions review and opinion concerning the very costly and largely ineffective consent decrees which have been forced upon cash strapped cities by the Obama administration,” the statement reads.
Sessions has already stated that his Department of Justice would be far less aggressive in its civil rights actions against police departments. During a meeting with states attorneys general in February, he said the federal government should “help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness. And I’m afraid we’ve done some of that.” The memo and call for delay made public on Monday mark his Justice Department’s first step toward realizing that goal.
The pending pull back has caused a stir within the civil rights community, where leaders have called consent decrees an important tool in holding police accountable and protecting the rights of all Americans, but especially those in communities of color. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, who served as an assistant attorney general for civil rights under Obama, called the Trump Administration’s actions shameful.
“We worked tirelessly in the Obama administration to enact consent decrees that reform troubled police departments and keep our communities safe, so I can tell you without a doubt that what Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are doing actively hurts communities, puts lives at risk, and does nothing to support our police departments,” Perez said in a statement to TIME.
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