Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Friday rescinded a Trump administration policy that curbed the use of consent decrees to address police misc
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Friday rescinded a Trump administration policy that curbed the use of consent decrees to address police misconduct, as the Justice Department prepares to step up its role in investigating allegations of racist and illegal behavior by police forces amid a nationwide outcry about the deaths of Black people at the hands of officers.
In a memo to U.S. attorney’s offices, Mr. Garland said that he was lifting restrictions on the use of consent decrees that had been imposed by Jeff Sessions when he was attorney general early in the Trump administration.
Consent decrees are court-approved deals between the Justice Department and local governmental agencies that create a road map for changes to the way they operate.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department aggressively used consent decrees and court monitors to push changes at police forces found to engage in a consistent pattern of abuse, as people nationwide decried the police killings of Black men in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo.
Mr. Garland’s memo was not unexpected, and it revives one of the department’s most effective tools in forcing law enforcement agencies to evaluate and change their practices.
His decision also comes against the backdrop of fresh unrest and protests sparked by the ongoing murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes before Mr. Floyd died, and the recent police killings of a motorist named Daunte Wright in the suburbs of Minneapolis and a 13-year-old boy named Adam Toledo in Chicago.
Mr. Garland said in his memo that consent decrees have historically been used in a wide array of contexts, including “to secure equal opportunity in education, protect the environment, ensure constitutional policing practices, defend the free exercise of religion” and more.
“A consent decree ensures independent judicial review and approval of the resolution” between the federal government and government entities found to have violated federal law, Mr. Garland said in his memo. They also allow for “prompt and effective enforcement” if those local government agencies do not comply with the terms of the agreement.
By the time a new wave of police killings sparked nationwide protests last summer, the Justice Department under the Trump administration had all but stopped using consent decrees to curb police abuses.
In a final act before stepping down in November 2018, Mr. Sessions drastically limited the department’s ability to overhaul police departments with a history of civil rights violations through the use of consent decrees and court monitors.
He imposed three new requirements on the use of such agreements, the most stringent of which forced career Justice Department lawyers to receive sign off on the agreements from politically appointed officials in the department.
Mr. Sessions also said that the department’s lawyers needed to lay out evidence of additional violations beyond unconstitutional behavior; and that consent decrees needed to have an end date, rather than end when the court was satisfied that improvements had been made.
Following Mr. Sessions’s memo, the department enacted virtually no new consent decrees with state or local law enforcement agencies.
Mr. Garland’s memo lifted those three restrictions.