On his way out the door, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memo made clear his disdain for consent decrees to reform wayward law enforcement agencies. They’re signed agreements among the government, a city or state, and a federal judge whose monitor reports regularly on the reforms made or stalled.
Sessions’ memo directs the Department of Justice to have top political appointees decide whether to enter into such agreements rather than career department lawyers; Justice Department lawyers must show evidence of law-breaking beyond unconstitutional behavior; and the agreement must have a sunset date instead of ending once improvement is shown.
Ryan Haygood is on the team monitoring the Newark Police Department.
“I think what it shouldn’t lead to is a retreat from consent decrees. These have been proven to really help transform police departments in areas where it’s most needed. So what we do know is that in Newark this won’t impact our consent decree, it won’t impact the work that has been underway now for two years,” said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of New Jersey Institute of Social Justice.
Former State Attorney General Peter Harvey is monitoring the Newark Police Department in a five year consent decree. Last year, when Sessions ordered a review of consent decrees in other states, Harvey spelled out what reneging could mean.
“Just because one party says, I’m not sure I want to pursue this anymore, it doesn’t mean anything. The other party has a right to say, no you’re going to do what you agreed to do. And remember now, once the two parties have signed it, it’s not just a contract. It’s been filed in federal court so now it’s under the supervision of a federal court. So you have both parties to the agreement now having filed in federal court what has become a court order,” Harvey said.
The Sessions memo says federal consent decrees take away local sovereignty and deprive the public of decisions they elect local representatives to make on spending and other priorities. His memo puts more of the reform onus on states’ attorneys general.
In a statement, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal says federal consent decrees strengthen trust between law enforcers and communities.
He says, “… It is deeply disappointing that, on his way out the door and apparently over the objection of the Justice Department’s career attorneys, former Attorney General Sessions imposed new rules that undermine such efforts.”