Sessions orders review of police reforms
01:53 - Source: CNN

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of police consent decrees

Decrees attempted to reform troubled police departments in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere

CNN  — 

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Jeff Sessions sounded skeptical of consent decrees, the legal reform agreements that the Justice Department had negotiated with troubled police forces.

“I think there is concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong,” Sessions said in January. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that.”

Sessions, now the attorney general, acted on that skepticism on Monday, ordering a review of the Justice Department’s police reform activities and consent decrees, according to a memorandum.

The review raises immediate questions as to the future of efforts in Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson and Cleveland, among other cities.

Police departments in each of those cities were subjected to Justice Department investigations and reform efforts after high-profile killings of black citizens by law enforcement. In each, the Justice Department found evidence of a “pattern or practice” of biased policing on a wider scale than any individual officer.

Here’s a look at what the Justice Department found in those cities and what reform efforts are underway.


St. Louis County Police and the Missouri State Highway Patrol watch Ferguson marchers.

The Justice Department’s investigation into Ferguson, Missouri, began after Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014. The shooting of a black man by a white officer sparked days of protests and riots in Ferguson as citizens rallied against what they said was rampant police misconduct.

The resulting Justice Department report found that Ferguson’s police practices were racially biased against African-Americans, who made up a disproportionate number of vehicle stops, citations, and arrests. The report also highlighted several racist and offensive emails among city officials, and found that the police had targeted black residents in attempt to raise revenue for the city rather than for public safety needs.

A separate Justice Department report declined to press federal charges on officer Wilson, saying that Brown was moving toward Wilson when he was shot.

The Justice Department and Ferguson agreed to a court-enforceable consent decree to overhaul municipal court and police department practices in March 2016.


Police stand guard as protesters march in 2015 following a mistrial declared in the trial of an officer charged in Freddie Gray's death.

The investigation into Baltimore’s police force was sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while being transported in a police van. The death led to fiery protests and, later, to charges against six police officers.

The Justice Department issued a scathing report, arguing that black residents were subject to disproportionate rates of stops, searches, and arrests.

The report also found excessive use of force against juveniles and those with mental health issues, and it found that Baltimore police “seriously and systematically” under-investigated sexual assault cases.

The consent decree agreed to in the final days of President Barack Obama’s administration issued sweeping reforms, including cameras in police transport vans and an emphasis on “de-escalation tactics.”

Justice officials on Monday asked to postpone an upcoming federal court hearing in that case amid Sessions’ review.


A Cleveland police officer looks on as people take to the streets and protest in May 2015.

The investigation into Cleveland police initially began after several use-of-force incidents, including one in which police officers fired 137 rounds at two people in a car after a high-speed chase in 2012.

The Justice Department’s report looked at 600 use-of-force incidents between 2010 and 2013 and found that Cleveland Police had a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force. The investigation also found the department’s internal affairs unit did not sufficiently investigate force cases and thus did not provide accountability.

The consent decree agreed to in May 2015 provided for an oversight commission and an emphasis on “bias-free policing.”


Demonstrators confront police during a protest in November 2015 over Laquan McDonald's death.

The Justice Department began investigating Chicago police shortly after police released video of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times. That video, which was released by a judge’s order in November 2015, showed McDonald moving away from officers as he was shot, and sparked a series of protests in Chicago.

As one of the final acts of Obama’s administration, the Justice Department issued a report of the Chicago Police Department after a 13-month review. The report found police had a pattern of excessive force, such as when an officer used a Taser on a naked elderly woman or when an officer pointed his gun at teenage boys playing basketball on his property.

Police and Justice Department earlier this year agreed in principle to negotiate on reforms of the police’s use-of-force practices, training, supervision and accountability mechanisms.

UPDATE: The headline on this piece has been changed to the original version to more accurately reflect the story.