Less than two weeks into a Donald Trump presidency, some members of the country’s largest police unions are already talking about reversing what they say are costly Obama-era consent decrees which seek to reform department policies.
The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department opened 25 investigations of law enforcement agencies during the Obama administration. Of those, 14 police departments are now operating under the court-ordered consent decrees, which seek to reform civil rights abuses like excessive force. Four other departments have made out-of-court agreements with the DOJ, and the Baltimore Police Department’s decree is pending approval from a federal judge — who has scheduled a hearing this week to discuss his concerns over the agreement, one of which is a lack of clarity on the cost of such reforms.
The judge’s concerns are warranted. Donovan Livaccari, a lawyer for the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police, says the New Orleans police department’s 2013 agreement has been “extraordinarily expensive” to implement. While the feds oversee the agreements, they don’t pay for them — the city of New Orleans has to foot the bill for the reforms outlined in the decree.
Cost aside, some conservative politicians and police have questioned the effectiveness of the consent decree process. Trump’s pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, has called it “dangerous” and “an end run around the democratic process,” adding the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ “has an agenda that’s been a troubling issue for a number of years
Jim Pasco, the head of the 330,000-member strong Fraternal Order of Police, says he wants to talk to Sessions. “There are certainly decrees that are inartfully applied that we’d like to see revisited,” said Pasco, according Reuters.
In Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer in 2014, officials failed to meet a series of deadlines as part of their court-ordered agreement. Onlookers say the missed deadlines are an indication of how difficult it can be to implement the sweeping reforms.
“While a number of deadlines have been missed, and deadlines are important, that does not mean that the city is not working hard both in terms of police reform and court reform,” said Clark Ervin, a lawyer responsible for overseeing the process, according to the Associated Press.
Chatter from the unions has civil rights groups worried about the reversal of the decrees. But not all union leaders think the costs of such reforms outweigh the benefits, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be so easily undone.
Jonathan Smith, the former chief of special litigation in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division told Reuters he believes most decrees will remain intact because the judges who oversee them are “committed to their implementation.”
Still, during his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Sessions “wouldn’t commit that there wouldn’t be any changes” to consent decrees already in place. A vote on his appointment is expected next month.