Biden Policy Shift Kicks Down the Door to Police Misconduct Probes

Rescinding a Trump-era memo, the new guidelines state that career lawyers, rather than political appointees, will have the authority to approve settlements between the Justice Department and local law enforcement.

Attorney General Merrick Garland and acting U.S. Capitol Police chief Yogananda Pittman attend a Tuesday service for slain U.S. Capitol Police officer William “Billy” Evans who lies in honor at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Attorney General Merrick Garland took aim Friday at a hastily written memo from one of his predecessors in the Trump administration that sought to curtail federal authority over abuses by state law enforcement. 

Consent decrees are court-enforced agreements between the Justice Department and local governments whose police departments are accused of civil rights violations. They were introduced in 1997 under President Bill Clinton when his Justice Department sought to root out misconduct from the Pittsburgh Police Department.  

Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called these settlements “a necessary tool to ensure entities such as schools, employers, law enforcement, and other government agencies fix patterns and practices of unconstitutional and discriminatory conduct.”

Cities like BaltimoreSeattle and Chicago have all been hit with consent decrees in recent years after investigations found rampant displays of excessive force. In 2017, however, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all ongoing consent decrees, and he released a 7-page memo in his last days as attorney general, cutting away at the agency’s authority over state and local law enforcement. 

Under Sessions, the department’s political appointees approved consent decrees rather than independent counsel, police departments were granted more time to respond to allegations of abuse, and the deals were required to include a “sunset date” instead of allowing the deal to reach a resolution. 

Attorney General Garland outlined new policies Friday in an internal memo to U.S. attorneys and other staffers. The new guidelines state that career lawyers, rather than political appointees, will have the authority to approve the consent decrees, state and local monitoring, and most settlement agreements. 

When resolving their findings, the Justice Department now says attorneys should consider the nature of the underlying violation, like whether the misconduct is widespread or if there’s risk of a future violation, and how the public interest will best be served. 

“This memorandum makes clear that the Department will use all appropriate legal authorities to safeguard civil rights and protect the environment,” Garland wrote, “consistent with longstanding Departmental practice and informed by the expertise of the Department’s career workforce.” 

Bob Harrison, a defense researcher at RAND Corporation, said the move underscores a philosophical difference between the present administration and its predecessor. “I believe AG Sessions was concerned about taking away from the local control of cities, police agencies and DAs, while President Biden (and President Obama before him) relied on the decrees as a primary tool for civil rights or pattern and practice reform,” Harrison said in an email.

Sessions and fellow Trump appointee William Barr both thought that consent decrees were overused for political purposes. Barr even expressed support for the memo during his confirmation hearing. 

Garland released the memo days after former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright, less than 10 miles from where former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin stands trial for his role in the death of George Floyd. 

“We have already seen evidence that the president intends to make police reform and civil rights issues a priority issue,” Harrison said, “and today’s action by the AG is consistent with that.” 

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