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What Are Consent Decrees?

There are a slew of criminal justice advocacy organizations and other individuals concerned about the latest stance by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions with regards to consent decrees. Sessions has gone on record as being vehemently against them being in use in cities, which falls in line with his stance of dismantling law enforcement reforms that he deems as being too overbearing on police departments.

On April 3rd, Attorney General Sessions moved on this stance when he directed the Department of Justice to not only file a motion to have a ninety-day postponement of a consent decree in the city of Baltimore (after the death of Freddie Gray) but to also review consent decrees made with over a dozen cities nationwide, including New Orleans and Ferguson. The motion was denied, as a U.S. Circuit Court judge approved the decree in Baltimore three days later.

Such moves fly in the face of the demonstrative fact that police departments & municipal governments that have agreed to consent decrees have done so as a response to the need for reforms. Attorney General Sessions has gone on record as saying such police consent decrees “push back against [officers] being on the street in a proactive way” and “reduce morale” in a recent interview. This is in line with his thinking that police departments on a whole can’t be flawed, which has been his long term stance during his time in Congress.

But What Is A Consent Decree?

Consent decrees are mutually binding agreements between two parties, and are sometimes referred to as consent orders. In the case of police consent decrees, they are employed when the government through the Department of Justice (DOJ) has determined that one of the 18,000 police departments in the nation have crossed a line in terms of conduct towards citizens, often in grave and serious ways.

Police consent decrees became more prevalent with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, known simply as the Crime Bill. If the DOJ finds reasons to believe that a police department is in a crisis with regards to tactics, it will initiate investigations. If there is substantial evidence of systematic abuse, the DOJ then begins the process of negotiating an agreement with the police department, city officials and those communities directly impacted by the abuse. Once the agreement is solidified, it then goes before a federal judge for approval and a federal monitor is assigned to oversee the reform process. To date, there are now fifteen total cities with federal oversight in the way of consent decrees.

One city that has recently taken umbrage with Attorney General Sessions’ viewpoint is Seattle, Washington. In 2012, the DOJ found that the city’s police department became too reliant on excessive force. The Seattle consent decree mandated that the process of reform involve the retraining of officers, modernizing all procedures related to the use of force including the reporting of incidents of officers using force, and to consistently communicate and work with community representatives to help enact changes to police methods to achieve reform.

The federal monitor assigned to the Seattle consent decree has just issued a 102-page report that proclaims that the city’s police department has made remarkable progress and that the reforms are working. This news has also spurred greater trust in law enforcement in the city particularly among the African-American and Latino communities. Seattle joins other cities such as Detroit, whose board of police commissionershas called on Attorney General Sessions to reconsider his position on consent decrees in light of the success such agreements have had in cities across the United States. Detroit underwent two such consent decrees in 2003 and was granted the removal of federal oversight last year.

The Case For Consent Decrees

Consent decrees have proven to be a viable and decisive way to ensure that police departments in the U.S. strip away any practices and systemic abuses that have become normalized. They are also still very much needed, as evidenced by what the DOJ found through its investigations in Chicago that centered on the 2014 death of Laquan McDonald who was shot sixteen times by an officer and the cover up that took place shortly after. That, plus the discovery of acts of torture committed at Homan Square by Chicago police officers has led to public demands for reform.

Consent decrees are a means for law enforcement officials in violation to re-align themselves with the honor codes and duties of their profession with the help of the federal government and other parties dedicated to criminal justice. They are considered by many to be a vital building block towards regaining trust and respect from the communities they serve. To refrain from issuing consent decrees and to eradicate criminal justice reform successes that were established in the past decades may erode trust and create more division between law enforcement and the people they are assigned to serve.