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Cities Don't Want Justice Department to Back Off Police Reforms

Attorney General Jeff Sessions may take a new approach to police reform, but many across the country still want the DOJ keeping an eye on cops.
Image: Baltimore police walk near a mural depicting Freddie Gray
Baltimore police walk near a mural depicting Freddie Gray after prosecutors dropped remaining charges against the three Baltimore police officers who were still awaiting trial in Gray's death in July, 2016. Steve Ruark / AP, file

The Justice Department is having second thoughts about forcing Baltimore to reform its police force, with new Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying he isn't sure the federal government should be overseeing local cops.

That skepticism may also extend to Chicago, which is negotiating a legal settlement with the DOJ over systemic abuses by police.

The problem with this new approach, outlined in a recent staff memo and court filing, is that many of the people who live in these cities want the feds keeping an eye on cops.

Related: Justice Dept. Seeks Pause on Agreement With Baltimore Police

Baltimore and Chicago both suffer from a long, painful legacy of distrust between the public and police. Both reached tipping points in 2015: first in Baltimore, which erupted in riots following a man's death in police custody, then in Chicago, when the city released a video showing an officer shooting a 17-year-old boy to death.

Police investigate the shooting death of 14-year-old Tommy McNeal on Sept. 20, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. McNeal was one of at least 3 killed and about 30 wounded by gunfire in the city in the past 24 hours.Scott Olson / Getty Images, file

In both cases, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division investigated, and found evidence of a "pattern and practice" of unconstitutional police tactics, including excessive use of force that fell disproportionately on the backs of minorities. This was under President Obama, who used the Civil Rights Division to force two-dozen troubled police forces into court-monitored reforms.

In the administration's waning days, the division announced an agreement with Baltimore, and began talks with Chicago on a similar deal.

Many worry that those efforts may now come undone.

“History dictates the fact that (the police) need to be watched," said Pemon Rami, a filmmaker and activist on Chicago's South Side. "Will the police police themselves? They never have.”

Related: AG Jeff Sessions Lays Out Priorities to Optimistic Police Groups

A similar unease runs through Baltimore, where Police Commissioner Kevin Davis tried to reassure the public that the city remained committed to a proposed agreement to overhaul the department. The deal still has to be approved by a judge.

"I want to say to the community in particular that the police department is absolutely dedicated to the consent decree process," Davis said in a Tuesday press conference. "There’s no backroom deals. There’s no sleight-of-hand."

The worries stem from the Justice Department's Monday request for a federal judge to give the government more time to study the Baltimore agreement. Attached to that filing was a memo in which Sessions ordered his top prosecutors to review all of the agency's activities ─ including "existing or contemplated consent decrees" ─ to make sure they aligned with Trump administration priorities.

Sessions has spoken in the past of his suspicion of consent decrees and his concern that a backlash against police had undermined efforts to stem crime. Among the principals he outlined in his memo were leaving local authorities to run police departments.

"It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies," Sessions wrote.

Demonstrators chant as they protest in Chicago on Aug. 7.Joshua Lott / Getty Images

That threw into question not only the Baltimore agreement, but also the future of the Chicago reforms.

"Why would I trust a city that covered up the murder of a boy they shot 16 times?”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said she opposed a delay. "Any interruption in moving forward may have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish," she said.

The city responded in court Tuesday night with a memo stressing the months of talks it took for Baltimore and the federal government to agree on a consent decree. The memo also noted that Justice Department lawyers told a judge in February that it was ready to proceed with the settlement.

An additional delay "would only serve to undermine, not build, public trust in the reform process," city lawyers wrote.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson were more circumspect, saying in a joint statement that they were committed to reforms already underway.

Police unions in both cities praised the Justice Department's moves, saying it reflected confidence in police and their ability to respond to existing reform efforts.

Thomas Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, cautioned against reading too much into the latest court filings.

"In discussions I've had with (Sessions), he has emphasized his commitment to reform and holding police departments accountable," Manger said. "So if anybody assumes he’s pulling back on these agreements ... and making it less difficult for police agencies, that remains to be seen."

But William Yeomans, a former Civil Rights Division official, said the agency was at a crossroad. Reform proposals helped restore calm after unrest in Baltimore and Chicago, he said.

"That peace may turn out to be temporary if the reform effort falls apart," Yeomans said.

In Chicago neighborhoods where police distrust runs high, residents said they needed the Justice Department's oversight.

"I don’t trust the city or the mayor to make any changes," said Aria Taylor, who lives on the South Side. "He needs someone bigger looking down on what he’s doing."

Ja'Mal Green, a Black Lives Matter activist, pointed out that the city resisted releasing the video of an officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald for a year until a judge forced its hand.

"Why would I trust a city that covered up the murder of a boy they shot 16 times?” Green said.

In Baltimore, Tawanda Jones ─ who became an activist after her brother died following a 2013 traffic stop ─ said she was upset not only by the Justice Department's request, but by the reform process itself, which she said should also have ended in criminal charges against officers found by federal investigators to have broken the law.

A courtroom adage applied here, she said: "Justice delayed is justice denied."