Wall Street Journal
By BETH REINHARD, SCOTT CALVERT and SHIBANI MAHTANI
April 05, 2017
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision this week to review concessions by local 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.
Mr. Sessions is poised to be one of the most powerful members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet as the president seeks to dismantle President Barack Obama’s legacy on a wide range of issues, including criminal justice.
As the new administration struggles to repeal the Affordable Care Act and ban travelers from some Muslim-majority countries due to terrorism concerns, the former attorney general and prosecutor from Alabama, who has been immersed in justice-related issues for decades, has swiftly implemented a series of crime-fighting provisions while relaxing civil-rights initiatives.
In two months, Mr. 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, potentially including attacks against police officers.
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Foreigners who want to visit the U.S. could be forced to disclose contacts on their mobile phones, social-media passwords and financial records, and to answer probing questions about their ideology, according to Trump administration officials.
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Donald Trump and China’s leader Xi Jinping meet this week for their first summit, at the president’s Mar-a-Lago estate, with both invested in dreams of national greatness. The meeting’s success hinges in part on whether aides have created adequate grounds for a working relationship.
The Senate is barreling toward a showdown over the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, as Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he has enough votes to change the Senate rules and eliminate the filibuster.
On Monday, Mr. Sessions sought to delay a pact with Baltimore aimed at curbing racially biased police tactics, and he ordered a review of similar deals with police departments.
Officials in Baltimore and Chicago vowed to stay the course in overhauling their 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 department’s change in focus reflects the Republican administration’s more conservative view of government. “Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing,” Mr. Sessions said in a memo released Monday. “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to monitor non-federal law-enforcement agencies.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Sessions, Sarah Isgur Flores, declined to comment further. Mr. Sessions has suggested that the two dozen investigations by the Obama administration into police departments may have tied their hands, damaged morale and contributed to an increase in murders.
The violent crime rate increased by more than 3% from 2014 to 2015, and preliminary data from the FBI for 2016 suggests the trend is continuing, Mr. Sessions said in a recent speech to law-enforcement officers in Richmond.
Dean Angelo Sr., president of Chicago’s largest police union, has said he agrees with Mr. Sessions’s concerns that such federal intervention can hamper policing in a city struggling to combat a surge in violent crime.
The involvement of officers in any reforms, he added, “is more important than any federal oversight.”
Officials in Baltimore and Chicago say they remain committed to overhauling police forces through legally binding consent decrees. The 1994 law authorizing the Justice Department to investigate allegations of systematic police misconduct was inspired by the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.
“In many cases, most cases, after a consent decree experience—when a consent decree experience is done right—that police department is forever changed for the better,” said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis.
A Justice Department investigation last August alleged that Baltimore police officers disproportionately stopped, searched and arrested African-Americans and routinely used excessive force. The black community’s mistrust of police deepened after seven city officers were indicted on federal racketeering charges, including allegations they committed at least 10 robberies.
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP, said local leaders can help improve the police department without a consent decree, but “you need the written contract to enforce it, regardless of who’s in leadership.”
Baltimore continues to struggle with unusually high levels of violence since the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries he sustained in police custody and a prosecutor’s decision to charge six police officers in his death. (A judge acquitted three of the six officers at trial and prosecutors dropped the remaining charges.)
After Mr. Gray’s death, arrests in the city fell 45%, while homicides rose 78% and shootings more than doubled. Last year’s 318 homicides gave the city its second-highest murder rate, and so far in 2017, police say, homicides are up 42% compared to this time last year.
Even before the Justice Department released a scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department last August, local officials began outfitting officers with body cameras, equipped police transport vans with cameras and updated its use-of-force policy to emphasize de-escalation and “the sanctity of life.”
Chicago officials are also vowing to stay on track even if the Justice Department’s report on the Chicago police doesn’t result in a federal decree. The city’s police department last month said it would undertake better community policing, improve training for officers and overhaul its use-of-force policy. Some activists remain skeptical of lasting change, pointing to a history of scandal within the police department.
“[Without a consent decree] a lot of people will feel like their voices were not important in this process,” said Richard Wooten, a former police officer and community activist. “By the attorney general saying ‘Let’s fix it ourselves,’ we are right back in bed with the problem.”
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