Justice Department Pushed for Police Reform Under Obama; Some Are Not Sure It Will Continue Under Trump

After the Department of Justice recently issued a scathing report saying police in the country’s third-largest city routinely violated the Constitution by using excessive force against residents, many activists cheered for the inevitable reforms — and federal oversight — they expected to follow.

The findings on Chicago officers set the stage for the city to negotiate a court-enforced agreement with the federal government, called a consent decree, to change how it polices while officials in Washington keep tabs. Police reform advocates applauded a similar pact Justice officials recently announced with Baltimore after the department found that city’s officers discriminated against blacks.

Some police say the government has been heavy-handed, and that its agreements with cities have cost too much and taken too long to implement. Some activists say the agreements, which often require extra training in use of force and better tracking of personnel issues, don’t go far enough.

But over the nearly 20 years the Justice Department has gone to court to force changes in police agencies in more than two dozen cities, the results have largely been positive, according to data and criminologists.

“Having been in policing for 34 years, consent decrees certainly do work,” said Ronal Serpas, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University New Orleans who was the city’s police chief in 2012 when it signed on to ongoing reforms. “These agreements give you a road map, though it doesn’t mean things change with the snap of a finger.”

In Baltimore, a pending agreement with the Department of Justice that awaits court approval was announced amid ongoing tensions over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died from a spinal cord injury after his arrest in 2015. Among other things, the pact would require a community oversight task force for police in addition to officer training in deescalation and implicit bias.

But while the Justice Department rushed to release its Chicago report and make its Baltimore announcement in the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency in hopes of ensuring reforms, experts say the road ahead is unclear in the Trump administration.

“There can be backsliding,” said Samuel Walker, a former University of Omaha criminal justice professor who specializes in police accountability. “One thing it often depends on is who is leading police and how much they invest in change.”

On the national level, that’s the attorney general, the top law enforcement official.

Under Obama, the Justice Department entered into agreements with 12 police departments, four times as many as under President George W. Bush.

Trump’s pick for attorney general, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said during his confirmation hearing that current decrees with police departments would “remain in force until and if they are changed,” adding that they were not “necessarily a bad thing.”

But Sessions also said there’s “concern that good police officers and good departments” get punished because of a few bad ones.

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Source: Los Angeles Times | Jaweed Kaleem