Sessions Handcuffed the Justice Department’s Ability to Police the Police


By Kanya Bennett and Carl Takei

In his final move as attorney general, Jeff Sessions last Wednesday issued a new policy that all but eliminates federal oversight of state and local law enforcement agencies that engage in unconstitutional and unlawful policing. While Sessions — a white man with money and political connections — will likely never be personally affected by this policy change, his decision to sabotage the legal instruments of federal civil rights enforcement is going to harm people and communities of color for years to come.

The new policy sets unprecedented barriers for Justice Department attorneys to negotiate consent decrees, which are court orders jointly agreed on by the federal government and a state or local law enforcement agency accused of serious rights violations. They usually require new training and policies to resolve these violations at a systemic level, with implementation overseen by a court-appointed monitor until the agency has successfully carried out the required reforms. Such decrees have covered everything from use of force to racial bias and officer hiring and oversight to basic recordkeeping.

Ever since Sessions took office, he was openly hostile to consent decrees as a “harmful federal intrusion” on state and local law enforcement authority. And his final decision as attorney general codified his contempt.

Sessions’ final policy imposes substantive limits on consent decrees — for example, limiting the scope of reforms, restricting what tools the Justice Department can use to monitor compliance with the decree, and requiring the Justice Department to end federal oversight earlier than is often needed to complete reforms. It also imposes similar limitations on other types of settlement agreements that the Justice Department could use short of a consent decree.

These self-imposed handcuffs will make it next to impossible for the Justice Department to bring about the kinds of systemic reforms that communities of color have demanded in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere. Reforming the embedded practices and culture of a rogue law enforcement agency often requires the adoption of a comprehensive plan that is backed up by thorough oversight and takes years to implement successfully. The Sessions policy attacks each of these elements — forcing the Justice Department to ask too little of the agency, do too little to verify that the agency is meeting its obligations and leave too early to finish the job.

Sessions’ maneuver is the capstone of his efforts to cut out the civil rights enforcement that Eric Holder, a former attorney general under President Obama, repeatedly described as the “crown jewel” of the Justice Department. It’s also part of the larger trend of the Trump administration cozying up to local officials like former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke who use the badge to abuse poor people, people of color, immigrants, and communities.

Because Sessions prioritized good relations with police interests above all else — with no questions asked — members of Congress going forward must consider the integrity of every Justice Department action on policing under his tenure. Sessions’ meticulously checked the box on eliminating his predecessors’ policies to advance constitutional policing. And perhaps for no reason other than to “have [law enforcement’s] back,” as Sessions regularly declared.

Sessions started and finished with consent decrees, but his impact on policing was broader than that. And with all of the distractions and blind eyes during the 115th Congress, there has been zero oversight from the Congress on just how far Sessions’ reach was.

Sessions’ “law and order” agenda eliminated or perverted Obama-era efforts to advance constitutional policing on a range of issues. His Justice Department kicked the can on collecting data on fatal police shootings despite a now four-year-old law requiring them to do so. Sessions’ perverted a community policing program known as “collaborative reform,” using it to address violent crime instead of systemic policing failures.

Despite bipartisan congressional efforts to rein in civil asset forfeiture, Jeff Sessions unleashed it, describing a “love” for it. Sessions cheered on police militarization when Trump eliminated all oversight and regulation of federal transfers of military weapons to law enforcement. And Sessions deemed the “centerpiece” of his “law and order” agenda, a War-on-Drugs-type program known as  Project Safe Neighborhoods, which the Congress just reauthorized.

With a new Congress set to begin in January, it’s time for members of Congress to conduct rigorous hearings and other oversight of Justice Department policing policies. The federal government has an obligation to ensure state and local law enforcement agencies uphold and respect people’s constitutional rights — not incentivize their violation.

Kanya Bennett is Legislative Counsel for the ACLU Washington Legislative Office and Carl Takei is Senior Staff Attorney of the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality

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27 thoughts on “Sessions Handcuffed the Justice Department’s Ability to Police the Police”

  1. Keith O

    Sessions did this, Sessions did that, Sessions is evil……blah, blah, blah

    Democrats cry how bad and evil Sessions is/was but yet they don’t want to see him go.

        1. Tia Will


          So I read it, and again the details are in the article. If you read the whole thing, you will see the rationale for wanting Sessions to not be fired. It had nothing to do with any issues other than his recusal. That doesn’t mean that there was any contraindication between feeling that he was not a good AG and feeling that his replacement would be worse.


        2. Keith O

          Tia, you stated:

          Who didn’t want to see Sessions go? I know a lot of Dems and not one I know wanted Sessions to stay.

          The article stated that Democrats wanted Sessions to stay.  What are you not understanding?

    1. Keith O

      Not trolling, I’m making a point.  Democrats will complain about how terrible Sessions was but were willing to try and keep him in office out of fear that a new AG wouldn’t keep their witchhunt on track.  Sounds pretty two-faced to me.

  2. Eric Gelber

    Sessions was so bad but the Democrats fought to keep him in office.

    For one reason: To protect the Mueller investigation. Otherwise, he was a disaster from the perspective of progressives—on immigration, LGBTQ rights, and civil rights enforcement, generally.

    1. Keith O

      So they were fighting to keep someone in office that “was a disaster from the perspective of progressives—on immigration, LGBTQ rights, and civil rights enforcement”.  So from the Democrats perspective to Hell will all these issues and people it was more important to keep Sessions.

      1. David Greenwald

        You want this to be black and white, and it’s not.  Politics is rarely black and white.  You have to weigh various issues.  The factor that you’re still not considering is that the replacement is not likely to be better on those issues than Sessions.

        1. David Greenwald

          I’m not spinning or deflecting.  I’m suggesting that the consideration is not a simple black and white one.  If you disagree with that, make an argument.

        2. Eric Gelber

          The Democrats hated Sessions except when they felt they could use him for political reasons.

          As David notes, no one appointed to replace Sessions would be any better on civil rights issues. The primary intent in firing and replacing Sessions was no doubt to undermine the Mueller investigation. So, given that the integrity of the election process is an extremely high priority for Democrats, this was not an unreasonable position to take.

        3. Tia Will


          I actually think that you are incorrect. From his previous writings, I believe that for Keith everything is black and white. We either agree with him, or we are wrong. Keith, feel free to correct me, but I have rarely seen any nuance in your positions.

        4. Keith O

          Tia, same can be said for you.  How often do you give into conservative views?  I have yet to see it. So for you and most of the other liberals on this site it’s either black or white too? No?

  3. Tia Will


    The Democrats hated Sessions except when they felt they could use him for political reasons”

    Here is a key point I think you are missing. For me the issue is not “hatred” of Sessions. It is agreement or disagreement with his specific positions on different issues. For example, I agreed with his decision to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation. But I disagree with his positions on the issues covered in this article. There is not contradiction, just an ability to judge on the basis of issues instead of personality or ideology.

  4. PhilColeman

    “When will they ever learn  . . .”

    Now that the many of you have been endlessly hit over the head by these few nonsensical and illogical contrarians, there is just one surefire solution to your little problem.

    Ignore, ignore. You’re playing their game, a game you can’t possibly win without your loss of sanity, and you’ll never convince or persuade.

    Stop feeding the trolls, no matter how they name themselves.  If you had a thought process like that, you’d want to hide your identity, too.

  5. Tia Will


    How often do you give into conservative views? 

    I accept conservative views and critics of Dems often. I have stated my disagreement with Obama’s policies here and even wrote a Vanguard article opposing his border policy. Both he and HRC were way too hawkish for me as another example. But when I have presented even the most mild criticism of Trump, I have been called out by you and others for my “hatred”. I have yet to see you make even the slightest admission that his policies might not be perfect. I do not see our approaches as the same.

    1. Keith O

      You’re wrong.  I called out Trump’s tax cut plan as unfair to Californians for example.  I’ve said his tweets and statements sometimes make me cringe.
      Same for me when I called out Obama or Hill of Beans on this site, I usually received much flack.

    2. Eric Gelber

      Tia – In all fairness, Keith does occasionally criticize a Trump policy if it impacts him personally –e.g.:

      “I called out Trump’s tax cut plan as unfair to Californians for example.”


      1. Keith O

        Eric, actually you’re being unfair.  Trump’s plan will help my tax situation with the $24,000 standard deduction which I would’ve never got close to by itemizing  So quit projecting that which you have no clue about.

  6. Howard P

    45 more days to Anonygeddom!

    [If you’re going to “do the time”, might as well “do the crime”]

    Please Santa, hurry soon, I can hardly wait!

    Want a train of thought that completes a loop (me, I want a hula hoop)



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