Under Barack Obama‘s presidency, supporters of police reform and the Black Lives Matter movement could at least take comfort in the knowledge that the federal government would make gestures at caring when cops gunned down black men in the streets. Reforms came slowly when they came at all, and police violence was still rampant in Obama’s final year, but the president and his attorneys general made a genuine effort to change things. High-profile killings in Baltimore and Ferguson prompted Department of Justice reviews of the responsible police departments, and the president made a moving speech in support of police brutality victims after similar deaths in Louisiana and Minnesota.
When Donald Trump was elected president, and especially when he appointed the fanatical Jeff Sessions as attorney general, one of the bitterest pills to swallow was the knowledge that the new administration would immediately start retreating from the Obama-era reforms. And given that most of these reforms were carried out by the executive branch, without legislation to back them up, it will be relatively easy for Trump to put them on the chopping block. No more somber speeches when cops murder innocent people, no more federal investigations into systematic racism within the responsible departments. This week, the Trump White House made its first step toward these rollbacks when Jeff Sessions ordered a review of dozens of agreements reached between the Obama-era DOJ and various local law enforcement agencies.
These agreements, known as “consent decrees,” were key tools in the previous Justice Department’s reform efforts, compelling police departments to enact certain reforms under penalty of court action. A consent decree reached in Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray, for instance, ordered police to use de-escalation tactics before violently engaging suspects, instituted independent federal oversight of the department, and ordered that officers undergo training on implicit bias.
During his presidential campaign, Trump said that Black Lives Matter was “essentially calling death to the police,” and Sessions is a law-and-order zealot who indicated immediately after his appointment that the DOJ would stop its independent monitoring of police departments like Baltimore’s. The first order of business was seeking a court order to delay the enacting of the Baltimore decree, which has not yet been officially adopted, for 90 days.
Attitudes about policing in both Baltimore and the federal government have changed in the two years since Gray’s death, when Obama’s DOJ crusaded for reform against a resistant police department. The city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh, campaigned on police reform. She and new police commissioner Kevin Davis have both already spoken out against Sessions’ attempt to delay the decree, creating a strange reversal: the city is fighting to keep the reforms the DOJ imposed on it, against a DOJ that wants to take them away. The situation is similar in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police Superintendent Eddie Johnson have said they intend to carry out reforms regardless of the federal government’s position.
Nominally, Sessions’ order this week simply instructed the DOJ to ensure that the existing consent decrees are in line with the Trump administration’s view of law enforcement. And fortunately, as the New York Times notes, the Justice Department lacks the power to completely remove the decrees without some sort of court action. But given what we know about Trump and Sessions, it’s safe to assume that this is the first step in a long effort to roll back the Obama-era progress on policing.