Wrongly saying Baltimore reached a deal with the ACLU, Jeff Sessions links rising crime to consent decree

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech Wednesday that a civil rights decree designed to reform the Baltimore Police Department was linked to rising crime, calling the city “one of the most tragic examples” of how such agreements impose restrictions on police officers.

“Colossal mistakes have been made by politicians and leaders that have had particular catastrophic consequences for the people of cities like Chicago, Baltimore and St. Louis,” said Sessions, according to a transcript of the speech.

But in assailing court-enforced civil rights agreements, Sessions erroneously said Baltimore’s consent decree was between the city and the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s actually with his own department and was approved by a federal judge two months after Sessions was confirmed as attorney general.

The decree followed a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department during the Obama administration that concluded Baltimore Police were routinely violating people’s constitutional rights.

The election of President Donald Trump appeared as though it might imperil the process of turning those findings into a legally binding agreement between the city and the federal government.

Lawyers for the Justice Department sought to delay the finalization of the decree shortly after Sessions took over, saying they had concerns about rising crime. But U.S. District Judge James Bredar moved ahead despite their opposition.

Sessions spoke Wednesday at a training event for law enforcement officers in Illinois. He initially focused on rising crime rates in Chicago, which does have a decree with the ACLU. He said that police in that city were trying to help reverse the trend but that their “hands still remained tied.”

Sessions then turned to Baltimore.

“After the death of Freddie Gray, violence and riots followed,” he said. “City leadership signed a consent decree with the ACLU. The results were the same as in Chicago.”

Sessions pointed to data from 2014 — the year before Gray’s death in police custody — and 2017 that showed declining arrest rates and other measures of police activity. At the same time, he said, murder, assault and car theft increased.

While he’s right about those crimes, he erred on the city’s rate of rapes. Sessions said that rapes in Baltimore tripled between 2014 and 2017. The police department’s data contradicts him, although it does show an increase. City records show 249 rapes were reported in 2014 compared with 375 in 2017.

The most recent state numbers, from 2016, do show a tripling of rape reports in Baltimore County — from 100 in 2014 to 319 in 2016. The FBI changed the definition of rape in 2015 to be more expansive.

Baltimore County police were criticized in late 2016 after an investigation by BuzzFeed News found detectives declaring large numbers of rape allegations “unfounded.” County officials promised to undertake changes, though a suit filed last week questioned that progress. The suit was filed by two college students who say the county failed to prosecute their rapes.

The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for clarification on Sessions’ comments. The Baltimore mayor’s office declined to comment, and the independent monitor who oversees the consent decree could not be reached.

In the speech, Sessions said the Justice Department would continue to hold officers who violate the law accountable but would not “malign entire police departments.”

Sessions said cities around the country face a stark choice.

“There’s a clear lesson here: If you want more shootings and more death, then listen to the ACLU, Black Lives Matter or Antifa,” he said. “If you want public safety, then listen to the police professionals who have been studying this for 35 years.”

iduncan@baltsun.com

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