The Sessions Debate: Did Ex-AG Take Deliberate Aim at Police Reform?

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Did police-reform advocates and the news media exaggerate or even misinterpret the meaning of Jeff Sessions’ parting shot when he changed Department of Justice policy on consent decrees? Over the past week, two analysts squared off over that question and what’s at stake in the struggle over policing strategies.

See also: TCR’s Sam Walker on “Why Police Reform isn’t Dead: The Case for Optimism”

First, at the National Review, Walter Olson said Sessions’ Nov. 7, 2018, order addresses a longstanding controversy over DOJ consent decrees with local governments on a range of issues, not just policing.

Olson, a senior fellow at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute and founder of the Overlawyered blog (“chronicling the high cost of our legal system”), notes’ Sessions’ criticism of consent decrees’ structural flaws dating back a decade.

Among those flaws, says Olson: “they let outside critics manage (and micro-manage) local agencies” indefinitely, without proper oversight or restraint. Sessions’ order merely places sensible limits on the DOJ’s powers, giving state or local governments more due process and DOJ leadership more authority to rein in underlings.

There may be principled arguments against Sessions’ new standards, Olson writes. But, he concludes, “to the daily media, primed as it was to fit Sessions’s every move into a pre-set frame of criticism, these questions didn’t even seem worth asking.”

Not so, responded journalist and commentator Radley Balko at the Washington Post.

Calling Olson’s critique “the most concise and well-argued piece in opposition to consent decrees,” Balko — author of the book Rise of the Warrior Cop, an indictment of the sorts of policing abuses often targeted by consent decrees — says the criticism of Sessions’ move was entirely justified by Sessions’ own record as a critic of police critics.

Sessions, Balko writes, “objected to the very notion that there could be systemic problems in police departments (such as in, say, Little Rock). He said in his confirmation hearing that mere criticism of a police department damages all police departments and, therefore, hinders effective policing.”

After describing examples of the need for decrees and oversight, and the ingrained culture they aim to root out, Balko cites evidence that consent decrees work, in that they greatly increased public trust in police in places like Seattle and New Orleans.

In the face of sometimes “jaw-dropping” systematic abuse, Balko concludes, “there’s a good argument” that the DOJ is obligated to act. “Morally,” he writes, “the case is even clearer.”

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