Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ remarks that his Justice Department will “pull back” on federal probes of police departments accused of violating civil rights of minorities reignited a debate over the effectiveness of federal intervention with local law enforcement, the Wall Street Journal reports. The decision was welcomed by some law-enforcement and city officials, who have pushed back against DOJ involvement in their departments, citing high costs of implementing the changes and an aversion to federal interference in local law enforcement. Activists and minority communities are concerned that they will have fewer avenues for recourse if they experience unfair treatment at the hands of police. The Justice Department investigations, they say, gave support to their complaints that they were targeted by police illegally.
The Obama administration investigated a record 25 law-enforcement agencies, ending in 15 court-enforced agreements, or consent decrees, to make changes aimed at eliminating excessive force and what the Justice Department alleged was departments’ systemic racial bias. Among departments that agreed to improve training and police oversight, and to treat minorities more fairly, were Ferguson, Mo., where the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown set off nationwide protests, and Cleveland, where 13 officers in 2012 fired 137 shots into a car at the end of a police chase, killing an unarmed black couple. Jonathan Smith, who headed the Justice Department’s civil-rights division special litigation unit from 2010 to 2015, said the Obama administration probes were extremely thorough and showed that there were widespread problems in policing. Jim Pasco of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest U.S. police-labor organization, said some sanctions imposed on police as a result of the agreements “made it far more difficult for police to do their jobs.” Officers may become less aggressive in fighting crime immediately after consent decrees, but not in the long term, says University of Alabama law Prof. Stephen Rushin. “I do not think there is necessarily a trade-off long-term between constitutional policing and crime prevention,” he said. “Our best guess is that the de-policing effect of federal intervention is temporary, until the new policies and procedures become routinized.”