Donald Trump’s stances on law enforcement have sparked concern that the Justice Department, under his presidency, won’t pursue police-reform efforts that have been a hallmark of the Obama administration.
Donald Trump’s election as president won’t upend the consent decree requiring the Seattle Police Department to adopt reforms to address excessive force and biased policing, according to the federal monitor overseeing the agreement between the city and U.S. Justice Department.
“I don’t expect the change of administration will have a material impact on the full implementation of the consent decree,” Merrick Bobb, who was appointed by U.S. District Judge James Robart to work with the city and Justice Department in carrying out the 2012 agreement, told The Seattle Times.
Trump’s pre-election stance that there has been a war on police and his campaign’s statement that the federal government shouldn’t dictate policy to local or state law enforcement has prompted concern that the Justice Department, under his presidency, won’t pursue the reform efforts that have been a hallmark of the Obama administration.
Under this thinking, the Trump-led Justice Department not only may be resistant to new enforcement, it might scuttle the agreements in Seattle and other cities around the country.
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“The consent-decree agreements already in place — they could just choose not to enforce. They can let it all die by doing nothing,” former Justice Department attorney Jonathan Smith told The Washington Post after the election.
Under Obama, Smith oversaw a ramped-up effort to hold police accountable while serving for 4½ years as chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. In Seattle, he played a direct role in negotiating the hard-fought agreement with then-Mayor Mike McGinn.
Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Alabama’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, is expected to bring a conservative voice to the Justice Department. Sessions has previously said the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division “provides tremendous benefit to American citizens” but should not be used as “a sword to assert inappropriate claims that have the effect of promoting political agendas.”
Yet Seattle’s consent decree is under the firm control of Robart, who, time and again, has demonstrated his full commitment to the reforms, even drawing national attention with his declaration during an August court hearing that “black lives matter.”
The decree contains hurdles preventing the Justice Department from “unilateral disarmament,” said a source close to department, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In the decree, a provision states: “No change, modification, or amendment to the Settlement Agreement will have any force or effect if not set forth in writing, signed by all the Parties to the Settlement Agreement, and approved by the Court.”
Once Robart approved the consent decree, it became an order of the court, said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and the Justice Department can’t say “never mind.”
“It’s locked down in front of a judge,” Holmes said.
With that, Robart can enforce the decree, including using his contempt-of-court authority, Holmes said.
Beyond the legal underpinnings, the city, under Mayor Ed Murray and Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, have made reform a top priority.
“We are on the road to reform,” O’Toole said after a postelection news conference with the mayor. “We have our road map, our consent decree. We’ll continue to work with many of the same people in the Department of Justice. So none of the political developments will deter us. We’re moving full speed ahead with the plan.”
Seattle’s consent decree stemmed from a 2011 Justice Department report that found Seattle police officers too often resorted to force and engaged in “troubling practices” of discriminatory policing that could have a disproportionate impact on minority communities.
Under Obama, the Justice Department began investigations into 23 law-enforcement agencies and entered 11 consent decrees, compared with 20 investigations and three decrees under his predecessor, President George W. Bush, according to The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization focused on the U.S. criminal-justice system.
Decrees already in place may continue despite a pullback, William Yeomans, a former senior official with the Civil Rights Division, told The Marshall Project, because “once a decree has been entered in court, the court has power to make sure it’s enforced.”
But the Justice Department could choose to either drop or drastically reduce the scope of investigations still under way in Baltimore and Chicago, Yeomans said.
Seattle can “take heart” in the fact it reached its agreement during the Obama administration, Holmes said.
Although the consent decree stemmed from an adversarial legal process, Holmes said, the relationship between the city and Justice Department has been “very much a partnership.”
The question now is whether that will change under Trump, Holmes said.
Seattle has adopted sweeping changes, including new policies and training covering use of force, biased policing, crisis intervention and de-escalating confrontations.
In September, Bobb, the federal monitor, found Seattle police had made “significant progress” in the past year in complying with many aspects of the consent decree. And for the first time, he provided a potential time frame for the city to reach full compliance: fall 2017.
“It has been a prodigious effort to come this far, and the distance traveled now exceeds the distance that remains,” Bobb wrote of the city’s efforts.
In the coming months, key assessments by Bobb’s monitoring team will shed further light on where the city is headed.
When full compliance is reached, the city and Police Department then must maintain it for two years in order to dissolve the consent decree, Bobb wrote.