More than a dozen cities, including Ferguson, Mo., have spent arduous months hammering out consent decrees with the U.S. Justice Department to institute much-needed police and judicial reforms aimed in large part at reducing enforcement disparities that unfairly target poor and minority communities. The cooperation of local police departments was key in reaching these agreements, which makes them partners in fixing what’s wrong.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions now proposes meddling with a cooperative formula that’s working. Last week, he ordered a review of Justice Department consent decrees and other interventions, threatening to reverse progress designed to halt the unequal application of justice around the country.
Sessions’ unfortunate decision could undermine a lot of hard work in the 25 cities whose police departments – including Ferguson’s – worked with the Obama administration’s Justice Department. In 14 cases, consent decrees were reached with federal judges serving as monitors.
These agreements are not anti-police; they are pro-Constitution. We suspect that Sessions is motivated in no small part by President Donald Trump’s drive to halt the questioning of police actions such as those in which officers are captured on video shooting or fatally restraining unarmed civilians. The White House has posted a pledge that this “will be a law and order administration,” committed to ending the “dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.”
Sessions’ memorandum, made public last week, emphasized that “the safety and protection of the public is the paramount concern and duty of law enforcement officials.” He noted the dangers officers face but added that they “must protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the public.” He also sought to distinguish the “misdeeds of individual bad actors” from the good work performed by the vast majority of law enforcers.
But in February, Sessions suggested that Justice Department scrutiny has gone too far. “Somehow, some way, we undermined the respect for our police and made, oftentimes, their job more difficult,” he said, indicating an intent to back off.
Absent in his statements – or Trump’s – is an acknowledgment that black and white communities in America have completely different experiences in their interactions with law enforcers. Consent decrees are aimed at “patterns and practices” within troubled police departments. While individual bad actors are part of the problem, the bigger problems are poor training and discriminatory cultures.
In Ferguson, the Justice Department found that “police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes.” Fixing this, and building trust in the community, protects both police and citizens alike.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III is right to vow that, regardless of what the Justice Department review finds, his community remains committed to the consent decree’s reforms. That’s because Knowles now sees, thanks to federal intervention, that exterior pressure was needed to force change.