AG Garland reverses Trump-era policy limiting consent decrees in police investigations

AG Garland reverses Trump-era policy limiting consent decrees in police investigations

April 16, 2021

WASHINGTON – Attorney General Merrick Garland reversed a Trump administration policy that restricted the Justice Department’s ability to force changes on police departments and other local or state government agencies investigated for abuse. 

A memo issued Friday rescinds a previous directive ordering Justice Department attorneys to limit the use of so-called consent decrees. The move – one of the first clear indications that the Biden administration intends to more aggressively investigate police departments accused of civil rights violations – comes on the heels of multiple fatal shootings involving police and amid deepening distrust of law enforcement.

“This memorandum makes clear that the Department will use all appropriate legal authorities to safeguard civil rights and protect the environment, consistent with longstanding Departmental practice and informed by the expertise of the Department’s career workforce,” Garland said in a statement.

President-elect Joe Biden has reportedly chosen federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland as his attorney general. Seen here, then Vice President Joe Biden congratulates Judge Merrick Garland after he was nominated by President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court in the Rose Garden at the White House, March 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)

For years, the Justice Department relied on consent decrees to reform prisons, jails and police departments accused of abuse. These court-enforced agreements with state and local governments enabled judges to ensure that promised changes are underway.

But Jeff Sessions, in one of his last acts as attorney general, directed Justice Department attorneys to “exercise special caution” before resorting to consent decrees, saying they can be a burden on state and local budgets and can deprive local elected officials of control. Sessions’ November 2018 memo also allowed consent decrees to be effective for only two years. 

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Under the Obama administration, the department opened about two dozen investigations of allegations of systemic abuse at police departments, many of which resulted in consent decrees with local officials. 

Investigations of police departments were largely curtailed under former President Donald Trump, although the Justice Department still investigated possible civil rights violations in prisons, jails and other facilities that house people.

President Joe Biden ran on a promise to reinvigorate federal oversight of police departments. This has left police unions and law enforcement leaders uneasy, believing that Biden, with whom they have a longstanding relationship, has moved too far to the left. 

Chicago city leaders called for calm and released bodycam videos of last months fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.

USA TODAY

The resumption of consent decrees is likely to disappoint some of Biden’s law enforcement allies, many of whom oppose the method. 

In a previous interview with USA TODAY, Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said consent decrees often exacerbate the tension between police and the communities they serve.

“Rather than improve a situation, perversely, consent decrees make them worse,” Pasco said.

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