Attorney General Jeff Sessions is making a terrible mistake in repudiating a crucial tool for reforming police departments: a federal statute that allows the Department of Justice to sue when there is a “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations. This law, Section 14141 of the civil rights code, has been vital in improving police departments in many cities, including Los Angeles.
There often is no other mechanism for reforming law enforcement agencies that are engaged in systemic violations of rights. In late 2016, the Justice Department, after a careful investigation, initiated proceedings under Section 14141 against the Orange County sheriff and district attorney, finding a pattern and practice of civil rights violations in the unconstitutional use of jailhouse informants. It is clear that these offices are not going to reform themselves. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has repeatedly denied the existence of any problem, failed to implement reforms proposed by his own review panel, and harshly attacked critics. Justice Department intervention is essential.
But Sessions has made it clear that he wants to end the use of Section 14141 and lift even successful agreements that have reformed police departments. At his confirmation hearings, Sessions said, “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers.” As attorney general, Sessions has continued to criticize these agreements. In early April, he ordered the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of the agreements and said that it isn’t the federal government’s job to manage state and local law enforcement agencies. The unequivocal message to his department is to end these orders.
This will undo significant progress in many cities and eliminate a vital mechanism for reforming police departments. Section 14141 was enacted in 1994. The Justice Department conducts a thorough investigation before informing a jurisdiction that its law enforcement agencies are engaged in a pattern and practice of civil rights violations. Almost always this leads to a negotiated settlement, termed a “consent decree,” between the local government and the U.S. Department of Justice that mandates reforms in policing.
Twenty such consent decrees have been negotiated and entered, ranging from small cities like Ferguson, Mo., to large ones, including Los Angeles, Baltimore and Seattle. Typically, a monitor is appointed to oversee the implementation of the consent decree and a federal judge retains authority until the reforms are in place.
In Los Angeles, for example, the consent decree was very successful in bringing about meaningful reform of the LAPD. In 2000, after the Rampart scandal, I was asked to prepare a report on the Los Angeles Police Department. After months of study along with an eminent group of lawyers, I concluded that there was a pattern that had occurred in Los Angeles for a half-century. There would be a significant event involving the violation of…