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Before Leaving, Sessions Limited Agreements To Fix Police Agencies (#GotBitcoin?)

Former attorney general had long argued that far-reaching consent decrees hurt police morale, led to more crime and represented a bad use of federal power.  Before Leaving, Sessions Limited Agreements To Fix Police Agencies

In his final hours as attorney general, Jeff Sessions signed a directive limiting prosecutors’ ability to rein in police practices they believe violate civil-rights laws, a shift he had pursued for years.

Mr. Sessions had long argued that reaching the broad agreements known as consent decrees with police departments, a hallmark of the Obama administration, hurt police morale, led to increases in crime and was an inappropriate use of federal power.

He had signaled he would back away from the use of the decrees since shortly after taking office, and the memo he signed Wednesday, perhaps Mr. Sessions’ final act in government, makes such agreements much more difficult to enact.

The move was a blow to civil-rights groups with whom Mr. Sessions often feuded. Many civil-rights advocates see the court-approved consent decrees as an important tool in fighting police abuses in places such as Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, where high-profile, racially-charged encounters between residents and officers drew attention to patterns of misconduct.

Such agreements have been used to force departments to overhaul training on the use of deadly force and to change practices regarding treatment of minorities. The Obama administration opened far-ranging federal investigations of police departments in two dozen cities, including Baltimore, Cleveland, Seattle and Chicago, at least 14 of which ended in consent decrees.

Mr. Sessions’ memo says prosecutors now must get formal approval for such decrees from political appointees at the highest levels of the Justice Department, and that they must provide more detailed justifications for seeking the decrees. Previously, approval for the decrees was left to lower-ranking career officials.

The change also will require Justice Department attorneys to set expiration dates for the agreements. Obama-era consent decrees were often lifted only after a police department had shown evidence of improvement, and agencies could be penalized for failing to meet court-imposed deadlines.

Mr. Sessions argued that wide-ranging consent decrees are often costly for municipalities and violate their sovereignty. Police groups and conservative activists say the approach too readily finds fault with police instead of wrongdoers, tying the hands of officers rather than criminals.

Last month, Mr. Sessions formally opposed a consent decree between Chicago and the Illinois attorney general’s office, reached after a Justice Department report issued in the final days of the Obama administration found the city’s police department engaged in a pattern of excessive force, particularly involving minorities.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, said Mr. Sessions had delivered on a promise, calling the Obama administration’s approach “heavy handed and coercive.”

The memo “would ensure that consent decrees will not be lengthy, open-ended arrangements with burdensome requirements or long-term, negative economic impacts,” the group said.

The new memo also applies to agreements between the Justice Department and other state and local government entities, such as schools, public-housing authorities and jails.

“This really makes it much less likely that consent decrees will be effective,” said Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department lawyer who worked on police-abuse investigations during the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Mr. Sessions shifted the department’s focus during his tenure, emphasizing programs to fight gang and gun crime and make it easier for police to obtain military-grade equipment, while putting fewer resources into Obama-era programs meant to overhaul police activities.

Police leaders became some of his most loyal fans, and he spent his last day on the job speaking to law-enforcement groups. “This was such a central part of his ethos,” Ms. Lopez said.

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