President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Justice expressed skepticism Tuesday over the use of consent decrees to address civil rights abuses in policing but declined to speak specifically on the pending agreement for Baltimore.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, during his day-long confirmation hearing for the Attorney General post, told lawmakers his Justice Department would approach such agreements with caution.
"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. "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."
Patterns or practice investigations by the Justice Department exist precisely to determine whether problems at a police department are isolated to a few individuals or whether civil rights abuses are more systemic. The Justice Department released a scathing report on Baltimore's Police Department in August alleging a history of unconstitutional and discriminatory practices by city police.
Sessions, who has previously criticized the use of consent decrees, said Tuesday that the court-ordered agreements are "not necessarily a bad thing" and "could be a legitimate decision," but the thrust of his comments appeared to oppose them, arguing they apply a stigma to police that makes it harder for law enforcement to do its job.
"It's a difficult thing for a city to be sued by the Department of Justice and to be told that your police department is systemically failing to serve the people of the state or the city," he said. "So that's an august responsibility of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice and so [cities] often feel forced to agree to a consent decree just to remove that stigma, and sometimes there are difficulties there, so I just think we need to be careful and respectful of departments."
Sessions was asked about use of the approach, expanded under President Barack Obama's administration, by Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. Hirono noted negotiations over Baltimore's decree, but she did not ask specifically about them.
Sessions said he "wouldn't prejudge a specific case." Asked later if his Justice Department would support cities that request patterns or practice investigations, as Baltimore did, Sessions said he thought it is a good thing when cities reach out to help from the federal government.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said Monday that the city is close to completing negotiations with the Obama administration and hopes to be finished this week. Supporters of the agreement, including Democratic members of the state's congressional delegation, have called to have an agreement in place before Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20.
Sessions' comments mark the first instance anyone in Trump's incoming administration has publicly addressed the issue, though police reform advocates have expressed concern that Sessions will not be as committed to the decrees. President George W. Bush's administration launched similar investigations, but was more likely to resolve them without court intervention.
Sessions was less clear on whether he would seek to change consent decrees already in place. He noted changes would have to be approved by a court, and said any decree would eventually run its course assuming the police department meets its requirements.
"Those decrees remain in force until and if they're changed,” he said, "and they would be enforced."