In one of his final acts before being forced out as attorney general by President Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions signed an order limiting the Justice Department’s ability to use consent decrees — similar to the one pending in Chicago — to adjust the behavior of local police departments accused of systemic civil rights abuses.
Under the order signed Wednesday by Sessions, top political appointees must sign off on the deals instead of career lawyers, according to a New York Times report published late Thursday.
Justice Department officials will need more evidence beyond unconstitutional behavior to negotiate the court-enforced decrees, and end dates for the deals must be pre-determined, the Times reported.
Sessions has slammed consent decrees — which were pursued aggressively by former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department — as a handicap on local law enforcement.
Sessions, who signed his order the same day Trump forced him to resign, had previously ordered a review of such agreements with cities including Chicago.
As written, Sessions’ order does not appear to threaten the consent decree soon expected to be finalized for the Chicago Police Department, which was negotiated by the city and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office.
Officials from those offices, as well as the Fraternal Order of Police, did not immediately return requests for comment late Thursday.
Chicago’s consent decree is a settlement between the city and Madigan’s office, intended to address the pattern of civil rights abuses by the CPD as reported in a Justice Department probe that began after the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke.
U.S. District Judge Robert Dow will make the final selection on the enforcement of Chicago’s decree, with the city recently proposing the annual cost of an independent monitoring team at about $2.85 million.
The monitoring team will work with the department, recommending reforms and making sure the department falls in line with the mandates stated in the consent decree. They will also report CPD’s progress to Dow and the public.
Vanita Gupta, a key Obama-era Justice Department official in the Chicago investigation, called Sessions’ order “a slap in the face to the dedicated career staff of the department who work tirelessly to enforce our nation’s civil rights laws.
“These agreements have judicial oversight and are used only when there is clear, overwhelming and well-documented evidence,” said Gupta, now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The rationale for such oversight has not disappeared.”