WASHINGTON — The potential of a consent decree between the Trump Justice Department and the Chicago Police Department was thrown into doubt on Monday, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions said pacts covering other cities done in the Obama era would be subject to a review.
The order for a review came in a two-page Justice Department memo ordering officials to “immediately review all Department activities,” including “contemplated consent decrees” with local law enforcement agencies.
In the last week of the Obama Administration, the Justice Department, then headed by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, concluded a 13-month Chicago Police Department civil rights probe, finding a variety of abuses, setting the city on a course that was leading to a federal consent decree.
Sessions, in his memo, titled “Supporting Federal, State, Local and Tribal Law Enforcement,” first disclosed by the Washington Post, said that local law enforcement, not the federal government was “first and foremost” responsible for “best practices” in policing.
In January, a week before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed an “agreement in principle” to negotiate a consent decree — culminating in the appointment of a federal monitor — to ride herd over the sweeping police reforms recommended Justice Department.
Lynch personally came to Chicago on Jan. 13 to deliver the findings of the Justice Department investigation: Chicago police have shot at fleeing suspects who weren’t an immediate threat; failed to address racially discriminatory behavior within the department and put their own officers at risk.
Speaking at a news conference at the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop, Lynch said the report found “reasonable cause” that the police department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. She blamed that partially on “severely deficient training procedures” and “accountability systems.”
In a joint statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson said: “We can only speak for our intentions, we can’t speak for the federal government’s. The reforms we have made over the past year are built on the principles of partnership and trust between our residents and our officers, and they laid the foundation for the 2017 reform plan we outlined just a few weeks ago.
“Through these ongoing reforms we will ensure our officers have the training and support they need to do a tough job well, we will strengthen the relationship with our residents, and we will make our city a stronger, safer place. Reform is in our self-interest and that is why Chicago has been, is, and always will be committed to reform,” they said.
Sessions’ call for a review of police consent decrees comes as no surprise. He long has been skeptical of these agreements.
In a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General several weeks ago, Sessions criticized the Obama DOJ’s scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department as “pretty anecdotal and not so scientifically based.” That’s even though Sessions acknowledged that he has only read the summary of the 161-page report.
To the cheers of the police union, Sessions sent his strongest signal to date that he was more concerned about supporting demoralized police officers than he was about negotiating a consent decree culminating in the hiring of a federal monitor to make certain police reforms are implemented in a timely fashion, no matter what it costs local taxpayers.
“Unfortunately in recent years, law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors. Our officers, deputies and troopers believe the political leadership of this country abandoned them. Their morale has suffered. And last year, amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty increased 10 percent over the year before,” Sessions was quoted as saying in his prepared remarks.
Trump has been focused on crime in Chicago, with frequent references to shootings in his remarks. The most recent was last week, during a meeting with leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police, including Dean Angelo, the chief of the Chicago police union.