For the last eight years, the Justice Department has sought to reform police practices considered discriminatory by any means necessary – something that has frequently involved the use of a statutory weapon that is little known by the public and even less well understood.
The DOJ’s so-called “consent decree” was established in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Rodney King riots, and it allows the department’s Civil Rights Division to sue local police forces that have been found to have “a pattern and practice” of violating people’s rights or the use of excessive force.
“One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees,” Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama wrote in the forward to a 2008 report from the Alabama Policy Institute. “Consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end run around the democratic process.”
The way the decree works is this: The DOJ launches an investigation into a police department’s operations, frequently after a high-profile incident – such as the 2014 shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.
If the feds find that the departments operate with an ongoing pattern of abuse, they sue, effectively forcing the law enforcement groups to settle the cases and undergo a change to their culture to a degree deemed sufficient by the court and the DOJ.
Under President Barack Obama and his two attorney generals, Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder, nearly two dozen investigations have been launched against various law enforcement agencies, many of which are still open. That number is not far from the norm for the federal agency, similar to the number of investigations that were launched under the Bush administration.
Obama’s Justice Department has issued nearly four times the amount of consent decrees as his predecessor.
Sen. Sessions’ opinion that consent decrees are “dangerous” is of more than passing interest, as he has been tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to replace Lynch as attorney general, so the activist approach taken by the current administration is likely to end on Jan. 20.
"I think he will follow the law,” J. Christian Adams, election law expert and president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, told FoxNews.com. “He won't abuse federal power. I think he will not turn law enforcement into an exercise in grandstanding.
“In other words, he won't behave like his previous two predecessors."
Much of Holder’s efforts in his six years in the post were spent rebuilding the Civil Rights Division, repeatedly calling it the federal agency’s “crown jewel.”
A report on the DOJ report listing the division’s accomplishments during Obama’s first term mentions the record number of “court enforceable agreements” which led to six jurisdictions — New Orleans, Seattle, Puerto Rico, East Haven in Connecticut, Arizona’s Maricopa County and Alamance County, N.C. – to address policing issues.
“For today’s Department of Justice, our commitment to strengthening – and to fulfilling – our nation’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice has never been stronger,” Holder is quoted as saying in the executive summary.
Some of the more recent agreements, like those with the Baltimore and Ferguson Police Departments, are better known to the public, but others are not and many haven’t yet seen a resolution.
Out of 19 investigations carried out since 2010, six are considered “ongoing.” These include:
- A December 2015 investigation into allegations of excessive force and discriminatory policing in the Chicago Police Department after a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, was shot and killed by an officer. The incident led then-Superintendent Garry McCarthy to resign after documents pertinent to the case were suppressed.
- An investigation against the Orange County, CA, Sheriff’s Department for violation of due process. The probe began in December 2015 after years of numerous allegations that prosecutors and deputies were abusing their power in order to lock down convictions.
- A case opened in April 2015 against the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office and Ville Platte Police Department in Louisiana about the alleged improper use of detentions and violations of the Fourth Amendment.
According to the LA Times, civil rights advocates are bracing for the division to have a more limited role in the coming years.
"Jeff Sessions has a decades-long record – from his early days as a prosecutor to his present role as a senator – of opposing civil rights and equality,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the Times. “It is unimaginable that he could be entrusted to serve as the chief law enforcement officer for this nation's civil rights laws.”
Others believe that Sessions that will restore professionalism at the Justice Department.
“He will restore honor to a department that, under President Obama, perpetually pushed a political agenda while neglecting to enforce the law,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told the paper. “It's time to end the politicization of the Justice Department and start defending the rule of law.”