Late last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo that put dread into the hearts of career attorneys throughout the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. In it, Sessions called for a “review” of all 14 reform agreements—known as “consent decrees”—that the agency had struck with cities across the country during its Obama-era push for police reform. By way of justification, Sessions asserted that “local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing” and that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
It was a straightforward articulation of a dearly held conservative idea: that federal big-footing of local authority is anti-democratic and should be avoided whenever possible. Police departments deserve the deference of the federal government, the memo suggested, and they shouldn’t be strong-armed into changing how they do business. Instead of forcing law enforcement agencies to abide by the dictates of federal bureaucrats and judges, the DOJ should “help promote officer safety, officer morale, and public respect for their work.”
On Monday, the Sessions memo showed up as part of a brief submitted to U.S. District Court Judge James Bredar in the ongoing legal case over police reform in Baltimore. The brief—which was signed, no doubt reluctantly, by some of the same Civil Rights Division lawyers who worked on the reform plan during the Obama administration—asked Bredar to postpone an upcoming hearing that was scheduled to take place just three days later. This was the second time Trump’s DOJ had made such a request to Bredar, and it was seen in the civil rights community as a transparent attempt by the administration to slow down and undermine the reform process.
The hearing in question was, in many ways, a formality. The plan was for members of the Baltimore community to come to court and offer their thoughts on the proposed consent decree before Bredar took the step of setting it in stone. In its brief, the DOJ argued for delaying the hearing by 90 days, so the Trump administration could “assess whether and how the provisions of the proposed consent decree” comported with the various principles and plans it had put in place since Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20. Chief among those principles, the brief suggested, was Sessions’ stated preference for keeping the federal government out of local affairs.
You might think, from reading the DOJ’s filing, that officials in Baltimore have been fighting the consent decree tooth and nail. After all, Sessions says he believes the feds should follow the locals’ lead. But the locals, in this case, have embraced the DOJ consent decree, which came about as a result of intense civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and a devastating report, produced by investigators in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, on unconstitutional policing in Baltimore. Before Trump took office, city leaders were working enthusiastically with the Obama administration to hammer out the plan for reform and publicly voicing their support for the process. On Jan. 12, a proposal was signed by DOJ attorneys as well as Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner.
The Trump DOJ’s attempt to push back the implementation of the consent decree until midsummer—and to leave open the possibility that it could be scuttled entirely—has not been well received by the local authorities that Sessions claims to respect so much. Lawyers representing the city of Baltimore as well as the Baltimore police department filed a motion opposing the DOJ’s request, arguing it “would only serve to undermine, not build, public trust in the reform process.” T.J. Smith, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, echoed that sentiment in a statement to the media. “The Baltimore Police Department is continuing to move forward with reforms related to the forthcoming consent decree for the overall progress of the city of Baltimore,” Smith was quoted as saying. “Further delays only serve to erode the trust of the public in this process.”
On Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before the hearing was scheduled to begin, Bredar denied the DOJ’s request for a postponement, and the hearing took place, as planned, on Thursday morning. As reported by the Baltimore Sun, it began with a loaded back and forth between Bredar and DOJ official John Gore, a political appointee who was brought in by the Trump administration in January to supervise the Civil Rights Division. Gore told the judge that while the administration “certainly agrees that there is a critical need for police reform” in Baltimore, making that reform happen is “really the job of local officials.”
Gore did not mention that those local officials want to do just that—and they want to do it hand in hand with the federal government. Just two days earlier, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis had stood in front of reporters and declared that his agency was “ready to roll with the consent decree” and was “disappointed” with the DOJ’s request for a delay. “As a reminder, we accelerated—by choice—our negotiations with the last administration to get a consent decree done before the change in Washington,” Davis had said. “We did that intentionally because we know that a consent decree will make the Baltimore police department better.”
It remains unknown, at this point, whether the Trump administration will escalate its efforts to weasel out of the DOJ’s commitment to help Baltimore reform its police force. What’s obvious is that those efforts have nothing to do with the Trump administration’s professed adulation for the wisdom of local authorities.