Sessions' order curtailing use of consent decrees will not affect Baltimore's police reform efforts, monitor says

The head of Baltimore’s consent decree monitoring team said a memo issued by Jeff Sessions just before he was ousted as Attorney General will have no effect on the federal decree ordering civil rights reforms at the city’s police department.

Kenneth Thompson, the court-appointed monitor, said there’s already a court order in place in Baltimore and that Justice Department policy doesn’t apply to the courts.

“It’s all prospective,” Thompson said Friday. “We have a court order that’s in place. It has no effect on what we’re doing.”

The Sessions memo does appear to curtail the U.S. Department of Justice’s ability to implement and enforce consent decrees in the future.

Sessions had previously criticized the civil rights decree designed to reform the Baltimore Police Department, saying it was linked to rising crime. He called the city “one of the most tragic examples” of how such agreements impose restrictions on police officers.

The city’s consent decree followed a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department during the Obama administration that found Baltimore Police officers engaged in widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing. The investigation was launched after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man from West Baltimore, died from injuries suffered in police custody.

“State governments are sovereigns with special and protected roles under our constitutional order,” Sessions stated in the memo, dated Wednesday. The document is designed to give state and local governments more power in negotiating the agreements.

Under the new guidelines, released by the Justice Department on Thursday, consent decrees must get approval from senior Justice Department leadership, must last no more than three years and must have a “sunset” provision that terminates the decree once the defendant demonstrates compliance with federal law. The use of monitors like Thompson, an attorney at law firm Venable, would be limited.

Lawyers for the Justice Department sought to delay the finalization of the city’s consent decree shortly after Sessions took over. But U.S. District Judge James Bredar approved the decree in April 2017 despite their opposition.

Thompson said that Sessions “can’t control Judge Bredar.”

Baltimore’s consent decree imposes significant restrictions on how officers can interact with individuals on the street, including in stops and searches, and orders more training in de-escalation tactics and interactions with specific groups, including youths and people with mental illness. It calls for increased supervision of officers, enhanced civilian oversight of the department, and more transparency. It requires new investments in technology and equipment. It also calls on the department to take overt steps to tackle racial bias in its ranks.

Bredar, in his order approving the consent decree last year, called the Justice Department's investigation of the Police Department “deeply troubling.”

“The problems that necessitate this consent decree are urgent,” he wrote. “The parties have agreed on a detailed and reasonable approach to solving them. Now, it is time to enter the decree and thereby require all involved to get to work on repairing the many fractures so poignantly revealed by the record.”

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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