The last act of Attorney General Jeff Sessions before being fired by President Trump was to dramatically reduce the federal government’s ability to investigate alleged civil rights violations in local police departments.
In a memo dated Wednesday but released on Thursday, Sessions instructed the Justice Department to sharply decline its use of consent decrees, which are judicial orders permitting federal courts to work with local police departments to address systemic, abusive behavior. Consent decrees were enforced during the Clinton administration and were leaned on heavily by the Obama administration, especially as Black Lives Matter threw an increasingly bright spotlight on police brutality.
Sessions’ memo dictated three strict new requirements for consent decrees to be used. High ranking political appointees must sign off on them, rather than career lawyers; department lawyers must prove violations that go beyond unconstitutional behavior; and the deals must have a pre-agreed upon ending, rather than being enforced until the departments have shown progress.
Sessions stressed that consent decrees should only be used in “limited circumstances,” and that the Justice Department should use “special caution” before resorting to them.
Black males aged 15-34 are nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by law enforcement officers. They are killed at four times the rate of white men in the same age range.
These disparities are even more drastic for unarmed suspects, according to a 2015 analysis. While racial minorities made up 37.4% of America’s general population, they made up 62.7% of unarmed people killed by police.
While Obama made limited efforts to combat police brutality, he was doggedly hampered by the Republican-controlled Congress. Trump, who campaigned as a “law and order” candidate and frequently conjures nightmarish warnings of criminals and immigrants attacking innocent American citizens under Democratic rule, used Sessions to largely do away with most Obama-era oversights.
Sessions’ chief of staff Matthew Whitaker is filling in as acting attorney general until a permanent replacement is nominated by Trump.
Nathan Wellman is a Grit Post contributing editor in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @LIGHTNINGWOW. You can also email him at info AT gritpost DOT com.