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Unleashing The Police? No Federal Oversight, No Justice, Activists Warn

By Bryan Crawford -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Apr 12, 2017 - 9:26:09 AM

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People for the American Way hold a protest in Upper Senate Park against the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as Donald Trump’s Attorney General on Nov. 18, 2016. Photo: AP/Wide World Photos

CHICAGO—After Mike Brown was fatally shot and killed by former police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, came a string of similar, frequent incidents between police and unarmed Black men and women over the next two years.

In 2015 alone, police were responsible for the deaths of 102 unarmed Black people, a rate of nearly two every week; five times the rate of unarmed Whites. This number could potentially be higher due to under-reporting by police, another chronic and systemic problem in departments across the country.

However, the most staggering statistic of all is that of the 102 cases of police involved deaths of unarmed Black people, only 10 resulted in officers being charged with a crime. Only two officers were convicted. Just one was forced to serve jail time, and he was allowed to serve his yearlong sentence exclusively on the weekends.

These sobering statistics have become the foundation for a call for nationwide police reform. High-profile and deadly cases like the incidents involving Mike Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and Sam DuBose in Ohio, Sandra Bland in Texas, Walter Scott in South Carolina, Terence Crutcher in Oklahoma, LaQuan McDonald in Chicago, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, shined a light on systemic racial bias within police departments. The incidents forced the Obama administration to embrace calls for much needed “police reform.”

“Over the past 10 years, and maybe even longer, the United States Justice Department— particularly in the Obama era— went into various cities around the country, including Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix because in each of them, there had been allegations and claims made by Blacks and other members of minority communities, that the local police departments were violating their constitutional rights with unlawful arrests, and harassment due to unlawful stops, searches and seizures,” Lew Myers Jr., a Chicago-based attorney and assistant professor of criminal justice at Chicago State University, told The Final Call.

“The Justice Department has a special team of lawyers and investigators that they send into these cities to ascertain whether or not these allegations against the police departments involved are true. If they find that they are true, the Justice Department would then make recommendations as to how the police need to change their patterns of practice, as well as the steps they need to take to improve the relationship between officers and the citizens of the communities in which they serve.”

These recommendations, known as consent decrees, happen as the result of lawsuits filed against police departments, are ordered by federal judges and are legally enforceable if the terms of the decree are not met.

After the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, in January 2017, the City of Baltimore and the Justice Dept., entered into a consent decree. A 227-page document outlined restrictions on Baltimore police, which included how they engage potential suspects. However, in order to become binding, a federal judge needed to approve it.

Enter Jeff Sessions

Jeff Sessions, 84th United States Attorney General. Photo: MGN Online
In early April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Justice Department to review all police reform related consent decrees, either pending or existing, saying, “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that.”

“The statement by Attorney General Sessions is simply wrong. It is difficult to imagine a more profound abdication of the Justice Department’s legal responsibilities. While it is obviously not the department’s role to conduct the day-to-day management of local police, there is a role for the federal government,” said David Rocah, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

He noted that in 1994, Congress gave the Justice Department the power to investigate and sue local police departments that engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives individuals of their constitutional rights. “This responsibility is a critical tool for reforming the police departments that are the worst abusers of the communities they are supposed to protect,” he added in a blog entry on an ACLU website.

“This is terrifying,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “This raises the question of whether, under the current attorney general, the Department of Justice is going to walk away from its obligation to ensure that law enforcement across the country is following the Constitution,” he told the Washington Post.

Atty. Rocah called independent and well-resourced oversight from Justice Department investigations critical.

“To abandon this critical tool because of an ideologically blinkered hostility to federal oversight is not only lawless in itself, it is in direct defiance of the instructions of the American people, acting through Congress,” he said.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, applauded U. S. District Judge James Bredar’s approval of the consent decree for the Baltimore Police Department despite Attorney General Sessions’ directive.

And, she warned, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ efforts to unnecessarily obstruct and delay reform in Baltimore, make clear that he intends to stand as an obstacle to policing reform across the country.”

In the last eight years, the Justice Department opened investigations into 25 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., an infinitesimal share of more than 18,000 such offices across the country, said the Lawyers Committee. “This tiny number represents police departments that require federal oversight to achieve meaningful reform. Baltimore is such a police department,” it added.

The Police Accountability Collaborative, a group of civil rights advocates and government watchdogs formed after the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video in Chicago, said reform is still needed.

“We’ve known this was coming since the new administration took office,” said Bonnie Allen of the Police Accountability Collaborative. “This announcement doesn’t change the nature of our work pressing for local leadership to advance reform. It just underscores the need for it.”

A retreat on consent decrees nationwide, and locally, will only result in further perpetuation of the unlawful use of excessive police force revealed in the Justice Dept.’s report about Chicago police, the group warned.

Critics say Mr. Sessions is certainly not alone in his crusade to turn back the clock on damaging law enforcement strategies.

He recently brought in Steven Cook, a former police officer turned federal prosecutor in Knoxville, Tennessee, who during a criminal justice panel sponsored by The Washington Post said, “The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed.” That “design” has had a devastating impact on Black people and their communities, since Ronald Reagan enacted policies in the 80s that disproportionately targeted Black people and Bill Clinton’s policies as president took mass incarceration to levels that had never existed in American history.

“The DOJ came to Chicago in 2014 after the LaQuan McDonald shooting and found that over a span of nine months, the Chicago Police Department had literally stopped a quarter-of-a-million African-American citizens in this town,” said Mr. Myers. “During the course of these stops, people were interrogated, searched and detained. But out of these 250,000 stops—which for the most part, targeted young African- Americans—less than one percent of them had any illegal contraband or guns on them. Most of those stops were without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, and they did it because they were African- Americans and all of these stops happened in African-American communities. They would’ve never done that to White citizens.”

Ferguson police in riot gear after civil unrest erupted when Darren Wilson was not charged in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Photo: MGN Online

Are consent decrees the only tool?

The primary purpose of a consent decree is to hold police departments more accountable for the ways in which they treat people. When it comes to Black people, police have long employed dehumanizing tactics that have resulted in false charges against suspects, serious injuries, and in more than a few cases, deadly encounters.

A consent decree is, in essence, an admission of failed practices and policies and a commitment by a police department to change the way it operates.

While this tactic was used quite often by Eric Holder and the Obama administration, many see it is a slap on the wrist.

However, police departments, with the backing of Mr. Sessions, have attempted to change the narrative and paint themselves as victims when it comes to calls for police reform and protection of constitutional rights.

“The danger of Jeff Sessions is that he’s totally insensitive to the real problems of law enforcement violating the civil and human rights of minorities and African- Americans in this country,” Mr. Myers said. “He’s saying that the real blame is not with the police department; they’re doing their job and there’s only a few officers who are out of control. This narrative shifts the blame. They’re saying they’re treating African-Americans the way that they are because they’re criminals and all the crime is in the Black community. That’s the Rudy Giuliani theory; the reason Black people are arrested more, beaten more and brutalized more is because they’re doing more to warrant that type of treatment. If you don’t run that narrative, then it puts the spotlight on the police who are doing this kind of stuff to Black people, and they don’t want that narrative to be on them.”

According to Mr. Myers, the Justice Dept. has broad power to enact much more severe punishment and penalties on police departments.

“Most of the police departments across the country get federal monies to operate,” he said. “If the DOJ really felt the police weren’t living up to the standards they’re supposed to, it has the power to cut off their funding. They could stop giving them grant money to buy police cars, weapons, or fund de-escalation training. They could hold it all back and force them to clean up their act. There are other remedies besides a consent decree and one of the major weapons the DOJ has is to cut off funding.”

Unfortunately, the chances of this happening—especially under Jeff Sessions—is virtually zero.

Judge pushes Baltimore consent decree

On April 7, 2017, a federal judge shot down Mr. Sessions’ order to stop formal enactment of the consent decree between the City of Baltimore and the federal government. Mr. Sessions had been actively trying to push the narrative that violent crime, particularly in major cities with high concentrations of Black people, was increasing. Numerous studies and verifiable data showed violent crime in the U.S. has not only been consistently trending downward for almost two decades, but at present, is at all time historical lows.

U. S. District Judge James Bredar wrote in his order approving the Baltimore consent decree, “The time for negotiating the agreement is over. The only question now is whether the Court needs more time to consider the proposed decree. It does not.”

Mr. Sessions staunchly stuck to his false claims after the decision, stating, with respect to Baltimore, “I have grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city. Make no mistake, Baltimore is facing a violent crime crisis.”

Since being appointed, Mr. Sessions has moved to aggressively eliminate any oversight of city, county and state police departments by the federal government.

“It’s the old state’s rights theory,” explained Mr. Myers. “Let these police departments run the show however they want to, and the federal government will stay out of it. But we know from history when states had this kind of total control, particularly in the South where Sessions is from, the civil and human rights of Black people were never protected. Black people were always discriminated against and Sessions is saying let’s go back to Alabama 1963.

“But we’re saying no to that and calling on the federal government to correct what they haven’t done and would not do. You can’t take us back and you’d better take being progressive seriously, or this country will be on the edge of some horrible things, sooner rather than later, if people don’t realize that you can’t just abuse African-American citizens and their rights. You can’t keep doing that and think that America is going to remain peaceful.”

(Final Call staff contributed to this report.)