AG Merrick Garland erases Trump limits on consent decrees for police

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks about gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 8, 2021.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday rescinded Trump-era limits on consent decrees, which the Department of Justice has used to enforce reforms in police departments accused of widespread misconduct.

Garland, fulfilling a campaign promise from President Joe Biden, said in a memorandum that the Justice Department “will return to the traditional process” that was in place before former President Donald Trump’s administration imposed sharp restrictions on the civil rights tool.

“Together, we will continue the Department’s legacy of promoting the rule of law, protecting the public, and working collaboratively with state and local governmental entities to meet those ends,” Garland said in the memo, which was sent to U.S. attorneys and other DOJ leaders.

The policy reversal comes amid historically fraught relations between police departments and Black communities. A series of fatalities involving police within the past year, particularly the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, set off waves of nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

Derek Chauvin, the white former police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes before he died, is on trial facing murder charges. The recent shooting death near Minneapolis of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, has sparked more protests in Minnesota.

Consent decrees are court-ordered agreements that can be used to resolve violations of the law or systemic misconduct discovered during federal investigations of state or local law enforcement agencies.

For instance, after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the DOJ launched an investigation of the Ferguson Police Department for “an alleged pattern or practice of unlawful misconduct” and other issues. Less than a year later, the DOJ said it found “a number of patterns or practices of unconstitutional conduct.”

A federal judge in April 2016 approved the consent decree between Ferguson and the DOJ, which required broad changes at the police department.

Just before he was fired by Trump in November 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions signed a memo curtailing the Justice Department’s use of consent decrees.

Sessions’ changes included requiring that consent decrees must be approved by senior leadership, and that they must include an expiration date, rather than being in place until the court deems the case can be terminated.

“I am rescinding the November 2018 Memorandum,” Garland said in his memo.

As a presidential candidate, Biden vowed that under his administration the DOJ “will again use its authority to root out unconstitutional or unlawful policing.”

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