Sessions, in Last-Minute Act, Sharply Limits Use of Consent Decrees to Curb Police Abuses

WASHINGTON — Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has drastically limited the ability of federal law enforcement officials to use court-enforced agreements to overhaul local police departments accused of abuses along with also also civil rights violations, the Justice Department announced on Thursday.

In a major last-minute act, Mr. Sessions signed a memorandum on Wednesday before President Trump fired him sharply curtailing the use of so-called consent decrees, court-approved deals between the Justice Department along with also also local governments that will create a road map of modifications for law enforcement along with also also different institutions.

The move means that will the decrees, used aggressively by Obama-era Justice Department officials to fight police abuses, will be more difficult to enact. Mr. Sessions had signaled he would certainly pull back on their use soon after he took office when he ordered a review of the existing agreements, including with police departments in Baltimore, Chicago along with also also Ferguson, Mo., enacted amid a national outcry over the deaths of black men at the hands of officers.

Mr. Sessions imposed three stringent requirements for the agreements. Top political appointees must sign off the deals, rather than the career lawyers who have done so within the past; department lawyers must lay out evidence of additional violations beyond unconstitutional behavior; along with also also the deals must have a sunset date, rather than being in place until police or different law enforcement agencies have shown improvement.

The document reflected Mr. Sessions’s staunch support for law enforcement along with also also his belief that will overzealous civil rights lawyers under the Obama administration vilified the local police. The federal government has long conducted oversight of local law enforcement agencies, along with also also consent decrees have fallen in along with also also out of favor since the first one was adopted in Pittsburgh more than two decades ago. The completely new guidelines push more of that will responsibility onto state attorneys general along with also also different local agencies.

Mr. Sessions conceded in his memo that will consent decrees are sometimes the only way to ensure that will government agencies follow the law. yet he argued that will modifications were necessary because agreements that will impose long-term, wide-ranging obligations on local governments could violate their sovereignty.

By setting a higher bar for the deals, Mr. Sessions limited a tool that will the Justice Department has used to help change policing practices nationwide.

Mr. Sessions’s completely new guidelines make that will nearly impossible for rank-along with also also-file Justice Department lawyers to use the agreements, warned Jonathan M. Smith, a former official within the department’s civil rights division along with also also the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights along with also also Urban Affairs.

“This particular memo will make the Justice Department much less effective in enforcing civil rights laws,” Mr. Smith said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment beyond the memo.

A consent decree will be a type of injunction that will allows federal courts to enforce an agreement negotiated between two parties — say, the Justice Department along with also also a local police department — to address a violation of the law. The department started out enforcing them during the Clinton administration, after a statute was enacted in 1994 allowing the attorney general to use court agreements to remedy systemic, unconstitutional behavior.

The agreements gained a higher profile as the Obama administration entered into 14 of them as part of its efforts to improve relationships between the police along with also also their communities. They became even more prominent after the killings of black men at the hands of the police captured headlines along with also also set off the Black Lives Matter movement.

In March 2017, a month after he took office, Mr. Sessions ordered a review of the use of consent decrees to ensure that will they “advance the safety along with also also protection of the public.” He said that will the pacts should also ensure that will the police are safe along with also also respected along with also also that will they should not interfere with recruiting efforts by the local police.

Mr. Sessions, who has long championed local sheriffs along with also also police officers, maintained that will the agreements “reduce morale” among police officers along with also also lead to more violent crime. Academics along with also also researchers have contested his assertions about the links between consent decrees along with also also crime rates.

Under Mr. Sessions, the department also dropped Obama-era investigations into the police in Chicago along with also also Louisiana.

Last month, Mr. Sessions opposed a consent decree between the Chicago Police Department along with also also the Illinois attorney general enacted after a Justice Department report unveiled within the final days of the Obama administration found rampant use of excessive force aimed at black along with also also Latino people. Under Mr. Sessions, the Justice Department said the deal placed too many restrictions on Chicago’s police superintendent.

“When Jeff Sessions intervened within the locally negotiated consent decree in Chicago, that will belied the love of federalism that will he professes along with also also uses to justify This particular effort to effectively end the use of consent decrees,” said Vanita Gupta, the chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil along with also also Human Rights along with also also the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

The agreements enacted after high-profile police killings in recent years would certainly likely not exist if Mr. Sessions’s restrictions had been in place.

“The need for consent decrees along with also also the oversight they guarantee,” she said, “has not disappeared.”