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Sessions Slams Baltimore Consent Decree

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday excoriated a federal court’s approval of a consent decree to overhaul the troubled Baltimore Police Department, an agreement that his predecessor and the city’s mayor and police chief had eagerly sought to achieve.

Sessions said he has “grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city,” echoing language used by a senior attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who had made a last-minute stand against the consent decree in a public hearing with city residents Thursday.

The consent decree was signed by U.S. District Judge James Bredar, who called it “comprehensive, detailed and precise,” and said it “is in the public interest to approve it.”

Bredar previously denied a pair of Justice Department requests to delay the public hearing Thursday and his signing of the agreement Friday.

Sessions, in a five paragraph statement, declared that Baltimore “is facing a violent crime crisis.” Citing a 22-percent increase in violent crime in the past year, he said that the Justice Department’s agreement with Baltimore calls for “clear departures from many proven principles of good policing that we fear will result in more crime.”

Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior, in an email, declined to cite particular parts of the agreement represented by those departures.

“We don’t want to get into specific provisions of the consent decree – though in a decree with over 200 pages that was thrown together in such a hurried fashion it’s fair to say there are several areas of concern,” he says. “The bottom line is that we have grave concerns this consent decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.”

The judge signed the consent decree four days after Sessions issued a department-wide memo instructing its attorneys to “immediately” begin reviewing all current and pending consent decrees to see whether they might undermine local law enforcement’s efforts to fight violent crime. Sessions has expressed broad skepticism of federal intervention in local law enforcement.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under the Obama administration vigorously used consent decrees as a tool to reform troubled police departments. First developed in 1994 as an outgrowth of the Rodney King scandal in Los Angeles three years prior, the agency entered into a dozen agreements with law enforcement agencies, up from four under President George W. Bush.

The Baltimore consent decree was the last that the Obama administration announced, an agreement unveiled during the final weeks of the administration in January. The Justice Department and Baltimore officials hurried to finalize the details of agreement before the transition.

The decree followed a scathing Justice Department review of the city’s police department, which was prompted by civil rights complaints and broad unrest following the high-profile death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in the custody of city police officers in 2015.

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