Nearly three years ago, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, were literally on fire over the police shooting death of Michael Brown. Things got so heated in Ferguson that local leaders invited the United States Department of Justice to help them identify systemic problems of racial profiling and abuse of residents in the St. Louis suburb — problems that are now being reformed through a consent decree with the city's police department.
But if it were up to Jeff Sessions, that likely never would have happened. Since becoming the attorney general, he has expressed nothing but doubt over police reform agreements, claiming that they impede police work. The attorney general has offered no proof to back up that claim, other than to cite isolated increases in homicides and shootings. Instead, he has called for aggressive enforcement of anti-drug laws to end the scourge of opioid abuse, despite mountains of historical evidence that it won't work.
"What Attorney General Sessions is attempting to do is to take us back to a time to when policing was a failure, when the practices failed," Monique Dixon, a lead attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's policing reform campaign, said in an interview.
That time was in the 1980s and 1990s, when violence and drug-related crime were at an all-time high. To remedy that, governments at every level implemented broken windows policing and the infamous war on drugs — but that didn't reduce illegal drug use or improve quality of life, Dixon said. Instead, those policies resulted in rampant civil rights violations, primarily in communities of color, and brought about mass incarceration. But in the last 20 years, there's been one key way for cities and police departments to roll back those harmful policies: consent decrees.
Like in Ferguson, several other local police departments have entered court-enforceable agreements on needed policing reforms with the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. Federal officials negotiate these agreements after investigating allegations of the use of excessive force, racial profiling or ineffective discipline of rogue officers.
Early signs indicate consent decrees are already changing policies in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer in 2014. But if Sessions needs evidence that police reform agreements actually do work, research shows that the Los Angeles Police Department made substantial progress toward reform between 2001 and 2013.
That agreement followed the videotaped LAPD beating of unarmed black motorist Rodney King in 1991, the riots that resulted from the accused officers' acquittal in 1992 and a police corruption scandal in 1999. A 2009 study of the DOJ's consent decree with the LAPD found residents were more hopeful about their police force. It also restored local confidence in law enforcement and improved the quality of police work.
Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School's Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management interviewed police command staff, officers, residents and those who had been arrested by officers. They analyzed years of of data on crime, arrests, stops, the use of force and civilian complaints. They found public satisfaction was up, and the frequency of use of blunt and lethal force by officers had fallen each year between 2004 and 2008. Researchers also determined that the consent decree was not holding officers back from enforcing the law, despite significant belief among the rank-and-file that it would.
But eight years into Los Angeles' consent decree, differences in the experience of policing among residents persisted, when broken down by race, according to researchers. Black residents were more likely than other groups to report that none of their interactions or the interactions of their friends and family with police were respectful.
Ferguson and Cleveland are two of more than a dozen cities in the middle of consent decrees, and it's still too early to tell whether they are working. But some progress has been reported.
In September 2014, former Attorney General Eric Holder launched a DOJ investigation into the Ferguson police department and municipal government after the death of Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old shot to death by a white officer. The report of that investigation cited Ferguson police for purposefully targeting black motorists with police traffic stops and ticketing. City officials encouraged the practice to increase city revenue through fines and court fees, the Justice Department attorneys found.
Since beginning a consent decree with the DOJ in 2015, the city has made some progress on a reform agenda that includes implementing civilian oversight of police, adopting new policies for use of force and overhauling the municipal court, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The latest status report is due to be filed with the court on Saturday, according to Ferguson decree documents.
In March, the Justice Department's consent decree with Cleveland passed into its second year. According to a March 14 court filing, Cleveland made "substantial progress" in the development of new use of force and crisis intervention policies. The DOJ's initial report in 2014 cited the widespread use of "unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons" and uses of force that were "retaliatory."
The data supporting consent decrees seems to not be enough for Sessions. If he has his way, a newly approved consent decree in Baltimore may not be enforced. And Chicago, the latest police department to receive a scathing review of its practices from the Obama administration, may not make it to the negotiating table.
"I can't speak to the specifics of Chicago at this point, except to say [that] Department of Justice attorneys will be going through a similar process of review as they did in the Baltimore case," Ian D. Prior, the Justice Department's principal deputy director of public affairs, said in an email.
The DOJ is not completely anti-consent decree. Sessions has said he wants to improve policing in the U.S. But there's a caveat.
"Generally speaking, however, the Department of Justice under this administration will never negotiate or sign a consent decree that will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city," Prior said in the email.
On Friday, a federal judge in Maryland denied DOJ officials' request to postpone final approval of the agreement that calls for city officials to hire an independent monitor to survey reforms in the Baltimore force. Following the 2015 in-custody death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the Obama DOJ investigation of police found rampant incidences of unlawful stops and arrests, as well as excessive uses of force. But even with the Baltimore consent decree in place, advocates said the threat from Sessions hasn't passed.
Chicago may not even see a consent decree approved. In the Windy City, the DOJ has yet to announce what will happen as a result of an investigative report that found police officers routinely violated residents' constitutional rights with use of excessive and deadly force. The report, released in January in the final days of the Obama administration, also cited residents' complaints that officers used racist slurs to demean them.
Sessions recently dismissed the 164-page Chicago DOJ report as anecdotal, and even admitted that he hadn't actually read it.
Ronnie Dunn, associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University who has studied police abuse, said the success of police consent decrees can be "a moving target." With Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department, these agreements are endangered, he said in a phone interview.
"With the new attorney general and the Trump administration looking to move away from and possibly repeal some of the consent decrees — or not enforce the consent decrees as thoroughly as the Obama administration would have — I suspect that some cities will take that as an opportunity to not live up to the letter of the law and embolden some police departments," Dunn said.
"I would suspect that the same will hold true in Cleveland, Baltimore and Ferguson," he said. "The degree to which there is police buy-in will determine the likelihood of whether police reform will occur."
There have been 70 formal police department probes since 1994, when Congress authorized the attorney general and the DOJ's Civil Rights Division to investigate and bring cases against any of the nation's more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies. As of January, only 40 of those investigations resulted in consent decree agreements with the Justice Department, according to a civil rights division report. Of those agreements, which are typically ended after both sides agree that reform has been achieved, there were 18 ongoing consent decrees.
In the civil rights community, there is an understanding that police consent decrees are not a cure-all for institutionalized discrimination, abuse and racism in American law enforcement. Consent decrees do not change bad policing overnight, particularly not when abuse has persisted for decades, activists said.
Ralikh Hayes, a coordinator of the grassroots collective Baltimore BLOC, said that while there isn't widespread confidence in the consent decree locally, it may prove to be a useful tool.
"It doesn't fix the heart of the issue, which is the fact that, at its core, policing has been about oppressing black folks," Hayes, whose organization is part of the national Movement for Black Lives coalition, said in a phone interview. "It's hard to believe that you can reform something that started off rotten."
Nonetheless, Dixon, the NAACP LDF police reform attorney, said Sessions' threat to policing reform requires vigilance. "Those who agree with [Sessions] are advancing a dangerous narrative," she said. "That in order to fight crime, police should not have any oversight. We simply don't believe that citizens should have to give up their civil rights in the name of public safety."