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On his way out, Sessions guts one of the most important tools for ending police abuse


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: On his way out, Sessions guts one of the most important tools for ending police abuse

  • The Appeal Podcast Episode 21: Criminalizing Trans Lives

  • States are enacting their own bans against “sanctuary city” policies as a federal ban crumbles

  • A mother wanted her son to be taken to a hospital. Instead he died after two weeks of neglect in jail

  • First compassionate release grant in Massachusetts for terminally ill man

  • Family sues deputies who locked them in a room for hours on suspicion of being undocumented

In the Spotlight

On his way out, Sessions guts one of the most important tools for ending police abuse

Jeff Sessions went out as he came in, an enemy of civil rights and hostile to his department’s mission to protect them. The Department of Justice announced yesterday that in one of his final moves as attorney general, Sessions signed a memorandum on Wednesday to limit the use of consent decrees, one of the most powerful tools the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has at its disposal in ending abuse by police departments and improving relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.  [Katie Benner / New York Times]

Sessions entered the attorney general’s office a fierce critic of consent decrees. As a senator, he wrote that they “constitute an end run around the democratic process.” In March 2017, he ordered a review of all consent decrees with police departments. Days earlier, the Justice Department sought unsuccessfully to block a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department negotiated in the final days of the Obama administration. While consent decrees were not entirely abandoned, there was “a presumption against their use.” [Jessica Huseman and Annie Waldman / ProPublica]

An article in ProPublica examining consent decrees and their jeopardized status under Sessions noted that they were effective because they “often require agencies or municipalities to take expensive steps toward reform” and allow local leaders and agencies to “point to the binding court authority when requesting budget increases to ensure reforms.” William Yeomans, a former DOJ lawyer, told ProPublica that without consent decrees, many localities or departments simply would not make the comprehensive changes needed. “They are key to civil rights enforcement,” he said. “That’s why Sessions and his ilk don’t like them.” [Jessica Huseman and Annie Waldman / ProPublica]

The use of consent decrees dates back decades, after Congress in 1994, following the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police, authorized the Justice Department to investigate local police departments and chart a course for reforms. The Justice Department typically begins by undertaking “pattern-or-practice” investigations of troubled police departments, looking for systemic police misconduct, including racial discrimination and the use of force. During the Obama administration and under Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, the Department of Justice entered into 14 consent decrees with police departments around the country, including in Baltimore, New Orleans, and Ferguson, Missouri. [Mark Berman / Washington Post]

The memorandum that Sessions signed on his way out the door was a final attempt to kill off these agreements. It imposes three new requirements on their use that civil rights attorneys say will give the Civil Rights Division substantially less power to bring about reform in policing. Under the terms of the memorandum, consent decrees going forward will have to be approved by a high-ranking political appointee rather than career lawyers as had previously been the case. It also states that in making the case for a consent decree, DOJ attorneys will have to present evidence of conditions beyond unconstitutional actions. Finally, the memorandum seeks to limit the duration, specifying that in most situations they must last no longer than three years and must include a “sunset provision” that allows termination even if the specific terms of the decree have not been met.  
[Memorandum from the Attorney General ]

Civil rights lawyers condemned Sessions’ actions. Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division under Barack Obama and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, wrote that the memo “is designed to restrict consent decrees and creates a series of increasingly higher roadblocks to render them rare and ineffective.” She defended consent decrees as “a necessary, careful tool to ensure entities such as schools, employers, and law enforcement remedy patterns and practices of unconstitutional conduct” used only “when there is clear, overwhelming, and well documented evidence” and said that “[t]he rationale for such oversight has not disappeared.” [Vanita Gupta / Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights]

Sasha Samberg-Champion, a former Justice Department lawyer and Counsel at the civil rights firm Relman, Dane & Colfax pointed out on Twitter that the memorandum would make it significantly more difficult to bring about comprehensive reform. “Traditionally, Division enters into settlement decrees rather than litigating to obtain injunctive relief,” he wrote. “Under this memo, consent decrees can only be reached with proven bad actors rather than as litigation alternative. That’s going to make it much harder to get anything done.” Furthermore, he wrote, “the relief can’t be different from what would be available in successful litigation. That’s going to really limit flexibility to work out creative solutions.” He offered the Civil Rights Division’s consent decree with Ferguson as an example, saying, “It’s doubtful some of this could have been obtained in adversarial litigation. But it’s what was needed to comprehensively change practices.”

Sessions’ hatred of consent decrees was manifest throughout his tenure. In a speech he made to the National Association of Police Organizations in May, he painted law enforcement as the victim of “[s]ome radicals and politicians” who “began to unfairly malign and blame police as a whole for the crimes and unacceptable deeds of a few” and “wanted the ACLU to determine police policies, and that was enforced by a federal court order.” He promised that “we will not malign entire police departments.  We will not try to micromanage their daily work all the way from Washington, D.C. We will not enter into agreements or court decrees that outsource policymaking to political activists.” And identifying with the president who just fired him, he assured his audience: “This is the Trump era. We support law enforcement.” [Department of Justice]

Stories From The Appeal

[Photo illustration by Anagraph/Photo by Tina Potocki/Getty]

The Appeal Podcast Episode 21: Criminalizing Trans Lives. Perhaps no group is more vulnerable to violence in our society than trans people, especially Black and Latino trans people. Often treated with scorn by police and judges, trans people frequently are criminalized for what would commonly be viewed as self-defense or a minor infraction. Appeal writer Aviva Stahl and trans activist Ceyenne Doroshow talk about the criminalization of trans people and efforts to draw attention to a population told time and again that their lives are expendable. [Adam H. Johnson]

States Are Enacting Their Own Bans Against “Sanctuary City” Policies as a Federal Ban Crumbles. In response, a new “Freedom Cities” movement is rising to defend immigrants’ rights. [Debbie Nathan]

Stories From Around the Country

A mother wanted her son to be taken to a hospital. Instead he died after two weeks of neglect in jail: When Vicki Futch contacted her sheriff’s office in Putnam County, Florida, she was trying to arrange for an escort for her 54-year-old mentally ill son be taken to the hospital. Instead, Greg Futch was arrested and charged for having hit Vicki in the face and was taken to the country jail. After nonstop vomiting, he was finally taken to the hospital two days later but quickly discharged. Futch spend the next two weeks in jail, barely eating, losing over 50 pounds, and steadily deteriorating. A psychiatrist wrote off his complaints as “malingering.” When Futch was finally admitted to the hospital on Feb. 16, he was in respiratory failure. He died the next day. An expert consulted by the Florida Times-Union reviewed the records and documents from Futch’s time in jail and concluded that “the medical staff watched Mr. Futch die from starvation and dehydration. They documented that he wasn’t eating, and did nothing.” The sheriff’s private healthcare provider and its employees, including doctors and nurses, are defendants in a federal lawsuit brought by Futch’s family. [Ben Conarck / Florida Times-Union]

First compassionate release grant in Massachusetts for terminally ill man: Alexander Phillips became the first person released under the state’s new compassionate release program, one of the reforms signed into law by the governor in April. Massachusetts was one of the last states to adopt a program of this kind. Phillips has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is one of seven people in prison who have applied for compassionate release so far. Of the other six, another was granted release but has not yet been released, three petitions are pending, one petition was denied, and one man died within days of filing his request. The corrections department commissioner had previously rejected Phillips’ petitions, including as recently as September, but reversed his decision based on deterioration in Phillips’ condition. Phillips was in prison for 12 years, serving a sentence of 18 to 20 years. [Jenifer B. McKim / WGBH]

Family sues deputies who locked them in a room for hours on suspicion of being undocumented: Last June, five sheriff’s deputies in Hancock County, Mississippi, pulled over the Martinez family on a highway and questioned them about their statuses in the United States. All the family members are U.S. citizens or permanents residents and had documentation on them. The deputies then accused them of smuggling drugs and detained them for four hours. The three children, their mother, and grandmother were locked in a room. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Mississippi Center for Justice have filed a lawsuit against the deputies and the county, accusing them of violating the constitutional rights of the Martinez family through unlawful search and seizure and racial discrimination, and breaking state laws against unlawful arrest and imprisonment. Rob McDuff, one of the attorneys handling the case, described it as a a “classic case of being arrested for ‘driving while Latino.’” [Anita Lee / Sun Herald]

Have a great weekend.

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