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Don't let Sessions dismantle civil rights protections

"Our goal is a stronger police department that fights crime while it serves and protects the civil and constitutional rights of our residents," Mayor Pugh said. (Baltimore Sun video)

Based on Jeff Sessions' dismal civil rights record as a U.S. senator, the NAACP protested his nomination as attorney general (I was even arrested for doing so), testified against him in Congress and predicted the consequences of his appointment in our communities. Specifically, we strongly opposed Mr. Sessions' view that consent decrees should not be used to hold law enforcement accountable.

He was nevertheless confirmed, and now our greatest fears are coming to pass, including the gradual dismantling of the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) legacy of civil rights protections, particularly those designed to reduce police brutality. Two years after the Baltimore arrest of Freddie Gray, who would die from injuries sustained in police custody, the DOJ under Mr. Sessions appears to be trying to walk away from an active consent decree meant to reform the city police department here and from those in 13 other communities across the country.

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Such decrees represent legally enforceable agreements between police departments and communities often victimized by police brutality; they aim to hold police departments accountable for both increasing public safety and decreasing police misconduct. Yet Mr. Sessions decided that the DOJ should review and even possibly retreat from them, despite the fact that these consent decrees were initiated by the Justice Department itself, and they were negotiated and agreed upon by multiple parties and many courts.

The review and possible undoing of these consent decrees is not a bureaucratic process but rather a turning away from justice with life and death consequences. When young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white males, when 963 people were shot and killed by police last year and when scandals continue to rock police departments, including Baltimore's, it is no wonder that there is a chasm between some communities and their law enforcement agencies.

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The Department of Justice has been crucial to creating dialogue and a pathway to change that can neutralize toxic and dysfunctional relationships between communities and their law enforcement agencies. Baltimore is an important example of this dynamic, where city officials invited DOJ officials to investigate. Abandoning or weakening consent decrees would be a betrayal of the police departments and cities that have asked for Justice Department intervention, of community members who have remained engaged in efforts to increase public safety, of those who have died unnecessarily at the hands of police, and of those who will continue to die without transformative change.

In his remarks and writing, Mr. Sessions consistently frames abusive policing as the result of a few bad apples in our police departments. But our collective experience does not support this viewpoint. In response to national outrage over one of the first viral videos, footage of the brutal beating of Rodney King, Congress gave the Justice Department the ability to investigate and intervene to address systemic issues. The Justice Department took this charge seriously, pursuing investigations and consent decrees, with the number of active consent decrees doubling under the Obama administration. As the review of policing issues in Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson and many other cities shows, abusive policing often occurs when there is a structure and culture that enables, accepts and even encourages it.

We cannot rely solely on existing state and local laws to create needed structural change. As the NAACP explained in our 2014 racial profiling report, most states have inadequate or nonexistent racial profiling laws that can make federal intervention even more important. Even where policing data are being collected, patterns of discriminatory behavior often remain. The data from the racial profiling law championed by the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP helped form the basis for the Justice Department's determination that there were widespread systemic injustices in Ferguson, Mo. Attorney General Sessions' decision to step back from enforcing consent decrees would leave these abusive structures comfortably in place.

As many communities have discovered, the attorney general's position on policing is counterproductive. How can police departments build trusting relationships in their communities without assurances that police misconduct will be punished? This trust is crucial to ensuring that violent crimes are successfully prosecuted, that officers remain safe and that community members are protected. When the federal government abdicates its duty to pursue civil rights violations, it is not a show of confidence in law enforcement. Instead, it is a refusal to reckon with systemic injustice and broken relationships between communities and their police departments.

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Cornell William Brooks (Twitter: @CornellWBrooks) is president and CEO of the NAACP.

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