A recent Justice Department review and attempted elimination of consent decree arrangements reforming troubled big city police departments in places like Baltimore and Chicago reflects the revival of a growing police union influence in Washington.
“The Attorney General and the new leadership in the Department are actively developing strategies to support the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country that seek to prevent crime and protect the public,” said a two-page directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions the first week of April. “The Department is working to ensure that those initiatives effectively dovetail with robust enforcement of federal laws designed to preserve and protect civil rights.” In early April U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar approved the consent decree signed between Baltimore and the federal government over the objections of the Department of Justice.
The issuance of that memo, along with Sessions’ very public embrace of police reform roll-backs, neatly coincided with the visit of numerous police union chiefs and lobbyists at the White House just less than a week before.
In what was described as a “listening session,” police union heads from the National Fraternal Order of Police and other big city chapters like Philadelphia and Chicago convened a major photo op with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other key Trump administration officials. The visit provided a fresh glimpse into the closeness between the Trump administration and the law enforcement lobby, as well as a sense that the administration would conduct a dramatic about face away from policing reform initiatives laboriously implemented by the Obama administration and Department of Justice under previous Attorney Generals Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.
“We have to continue to stress the necessity of constitutional policing in Baltimore and break the culture of zero-tolerance policing brought to the city many years ago,” said Baltimore’s police Commissioner Kevin Davis during a press conference responding to the new directive earlier in the month. Various big city departments, in places such as Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia, have viewed the decrees as reliable navigation guides towards needed reforms, even when that puts police department leadership at odds with local police unions.
“The DOJ has historically played an important role in criminal justice reform efforts, including those that promote accountability in policing,” notes the Center for American Progress Vice President of Criminal Justice Reform Ed Chung. “Yet, the Trump administration is threatening to derail much of this progress, even going so far as to ignore local law enforcement, political leaders, and communities that support reform efforts.”
The national FOP’s predictable endorsement of Donald Trump the candidate – who focused on law and order, a major platform of his campaign – along with support from untold scores of local police union lodges, was a major step toward regaining a level of influence in Washington that was lost during the previous eight years.
Police unions hadn’t endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996. The national FOP did not endorse Romney in 2012 due to what they called his anti-union stance. The FOP’s enthusiastic embrace of Trump was notable given the racially-charged atmosphere during the election cycle and especially since the flashpoints of Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Md. and New York, NY. “Donald Trump may not ever have been elected to public [office] but he is a proven leader,” said national FOP President Chuck Canterbury in September when announcing his endorsement. “[A]nd that’s what we need for the next four years – a leader unafraid to make tough choices and see them through.”
One of those “tough choices” that had long emerged into a prime target of police unions was the consent decree, a carefully constructed, court-supervised arrangement between the federal Justice Department and a local police agency to eliminate patterns of civil rights violations. Many long-time observers of the consent decree credit it with cleaning up many major urban police departments and ushering in a new era of “community policing.” Some, including police chiefs, have credited the decrees with not only improving policing standards, but also modernizing local police departments through increased training, professionalization, and the upgrading of equipment.
Police unions, however, differ on that. They claim the decrees are expensive micro-management tools that demoralize their members and are wasteful on limited budgets. When Steve Loomis, Cleveland Police Patrolmen Association’s president, told candidate Trump that federal consent decree monitors were on a $250-hour salary, according to Reuters, Trump was reportedly “taken aback by the waste of money.”
Hence, many observers point out that the new Justice Department’s reversal on consent decrees is no surprise given the recent coziness between law enforcement and the new president.
The extent of that political relationship is rapidly influencing how Washington responds to incidents of egregious police behavior. Civil rights organizations and Black elected officials no longer have access to the White House. As consent decrees face uncertainty, civil rights advocates are bracing for federal law enforcement officials to simply kick cases back to local police departments, prosecutors, and courts.