U.S. Commission on Civil Rights calls on Justice Department to recommit to police oversight, including consent decrees

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is calling on the Justice Department to “return to vigorous enforcement of constitutional policing” through the use of binding police reform agreements like the one in place in Baltimore.

The recommendation is one of several found in a 221-page report on policing that the independent watchdog group released Thursday.

It comes less than a week after outgoing Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a terse memorandum dramatically reducing the ability of federal law enforcement officials to use such court-enforced consent decrees to challenge unconstitutional policing practices in local communities nationwide.

The commission report, titled “Police Use of Force: An Examination of Modern Policing Practices,” takes a deep look at police shootings and other uses of force — including against young black men — that have led to protests and unrest in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities across the country in recent years.

It offers recommendations for how the federal government could address such incidents and prevent them from happening in the future. Among them: signing consent decrees, increasing training for officers, increasing grant funding for reform efforts, and improving federal data collection on such incidents by requiring local jurisdictions to submit data before they can receive federal funding.

In a letter addressed to President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, commission chair Catherine E. Lhamon wrote that a majority of the eight-member panel agreed that such reforms will help “stem the tide of perceived conflict between police officers and their communities” and “recommit this nation to the principles of fairness and equal treatment, including at the hands of police, that are core to democracy.”

The White House referred all questions about the report to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was created under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and reauthorized by Congress multiple times since, as an “independent, bipartisan, fact-finding federal agency” with a mission “to inform the development of national civil rights policy and enhance enforcement of federal civil rights laws.”

In an interview, Lhamon said the report was the result of four years of research and analysis by the commission, which unanimously voted in December 2014 to investigate police uses of force.

She said its release so soon after Sessions’ memo was “coincidental,” but also “timely.” She said she hopes it provides a compelling counterpoint to the memo, which she called “incredibly harmful.”

The Trump administration has castigated consent decrees as expensive and undemocratic overreaches that remove the power to make policing and budgetary decisions from locally-elected officials.

Sessions tried to stop the Baltimore consent decree, which was agreed to in the waning days of the Obama administration, by suggesting it would make Baltimore less safe. However, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, overseeing the consent decree case in federal court, disagreed and entered the agreement anyway in April 2017.

The deal requires the Baltimore Police Department to make an array of reforms touching on everything from the use of force to officer training and supervision, interactions with minority communities and protesters, police protocols for patrols and stops, searches and seizures, police department staffing and the use of technology in the crime fight.

The deal was the result of a Justice Department investigation launched in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody. Gray’s death led to unrest and rioting in April 2015.

The Justice Department investigation found widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing in the department going back decades, and it then negotiated with the city to produce the lengthy list of reform mandates in the consent decree. The work is ongoing.

Lhamon, a Maryland resident and Democrat appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama in 2016, said consent decrees have been shown to improve police departments and their constitutional treatment of citizens, and reduce use of force. And she criticized what she said was the Trump administration’s “unprecedented” and “deeply dangerous” abdication of its duty to oversee local police departments, including through the use of such agreements.

Lhamon said Sessions’ memo, making it far less likely that consent decrees will be struck with problematic police departments moving forward, ignores pleas for reforms from citizens and police officers across the country.

“The sad reality is that these … are daily concerns for too many Americans and too many police officers across the country, who every day are trying to find better ways to interact,” she said.

In addition to entering into consent decrees, the commission recommended the Justice Department “create and maintain a public, national database of police use of force incidents,” and twice a year release the names of all jurisdictions in the country that fail to submit data.

It recommended training for officers on de-escalation tactics and “alternatives to use of force,” and called on police departments to implement “early intervention systems” to identify problem officers. It recommended that state-appointed independent prosecutors and investigators handle use-of-force cases, rather than local prosecutors and investigators.

And it said police departments “should not include nondisclosure agreements in civil settlements of use of force cases,” which Baltimore does, and that civilian review boards put in place to monitor police “should have real power over investigations,” something Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board members say they lack.

It also said states should reconsider laws that give officers involved in use-of-force incidents time before being questioned, and which prevent investigations into older allegations against officers. Maryland has laws that do both.

Lhamon said she and four other Democrat-appointed members of the commission voted to approve the language of the report and all of its findings and recommendations, while two Republican-appointed commissioners voted against the report and its findings.

In a statement at the end of the report, Gail Heriot, who was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wrote that she believes “there are ways to improve police practices so as to better protect the rights of those suspected of crimes and of bystanders,” but that she was “not convinced that increased federal control over local police forces holds much promise except in the most egregious of cases.”

“Seldom does adding layers and layers of bureaucracy on a problem improve it,” she wrote.

Peter Kirsanow, appointed by retired House Speaker John Boehner, in his dissent, challenged the idea that Justice Department involvement in police affairs has been beneficial.

“For example, Chicago and Baltimore are two cities that have been made prominent targets of DOJ investigations and consent decrees,” he wrote. “Both witnessed dramatic spikes in crime, particularly murders. Maybe the investigations and consent decrees made some members of the community feel better, but they seem to have mostly emboldened the criminal community — and it is doubtful that an increased number of listening sessions are of much comfort to the parents of a child hit by a stray bullet.”

krector@baltsun.com

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