Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to review concessions by police departments accused of misconduct is part of a seismic shift at the Justice Department, which has quickly changed its emphasis under the Trump administration from protecting civil rights to promoting law and order, the Wall Street Journal reports. Sessions is poised to be one of the most powerful members of President Trump’s cabinet as the president seeks to dismantle Barack Obama’s legacy on a wide range of issues, including criminal justice. Sessions has reversed the department’s withdrawal from for-profit prisons; pulled out from part of a major voting rights case in Texas; nixed federal guidance allowing transgender students to use the public bathrooms of their choice; threatened to withhold Justice Department funding from “sanctuary cities” that thwart cooperation with federal immigration officials; and ordered a crackdown on violent crime.
Officials in Baltimore and Chicago vowed to stay the course in overhauling police departments, but civil-liberties leaders say federal oversight is needed to root out excessive force and prevent harassment of minorities. “This is supposed to be Department of Justice, not the Department of Law and Order,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “The Justice Department of course is involved in crime reduction, but its fundamental mission is to protect the constitutional rights of the people of the United States.” That’s not how everyone sees it. The DOJ change in focus reflects the Republican administration’s conservative view of government. “Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing,” Sessions said. “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to monitor non-federal law-enforcement agencies.” Violent crime increased 3 percent from 2014 to 2015, and preliminary data from the FBI for 2016 suggests the trend is continuing. Dean Angelo Sr., president of Chicago’s largest police union, agrees with Sessions’s concerns that federal intervention can hamper policing in a city struggling to combat violent crime. The involvement of officers in reforms, he added, “is more important than any federal oversight.”