Concern Over Trump Rollback of Police Reform Ignores Power of Local Governments
Court filings seeking to postpone a critical public hearing on Baltimore’s proposed consent decree detail how the Department of Justice is shifting from police scrutiny to ‘law and order,’ but local officials still have power to implement reforms by Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Salisbury, Maryland.
The long process of reforming the troubled Baltimore City Police Department may have been dealt a serious set back. The Trump administration filed a motion, seeking to delay a critical hearing, regarding the consent decree between The Department of Justice, and the Baltimore Police Department.
The decree was negotiated after a scathing Justice Department report found Baltimore police engaged in unconstitutional police practices, and racist tactics. Currently the preliminary agreement is in front of a federal judge, who had scheduled a hearing to accommodate public input this week.
But in court filings yesterday, Department of Justice lawyers cited a new emphasis on law and order and crime fighting, in the Trump administration, as the reason the department needed to review the decree.
Attorneys noted that Trump had instructed the Department of Justice to focus on the surge in violence, in cities like Baltimore. And wanted to make sure that the consent decree promoted these new principles.
Here to discuss the implications is investigative reporter Stephen Janis.
Stephen, can you tell me about the consent decree and how we got here?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, as you said before, the Justice Department issued a very critical report on the Baltimore City Police Department, finding unconstitutional practices and racist policies. And so, out of that came a consent decree that was hastily negotiated between the Department of Justice, under the Obama administration, and City of Baltimore. And filed with the federal court quickly, just before Donald Trump was inaugurated.
As many city officials said, and as the federal government said or the Justice Department, that they need to do this, because it wouldn’t be done under the Trump administration. And so, that process had been moving forward. And what we were expecting was a hearing this week, where people from the public, or citizens, could give input about what they wanted to see in this decree.
The decree itself is pretty complex. It includes a multitude array of changes, notably some changes in training. But even more important, changes in the type of arrests the police can make. Or, in other words, the police could not, for example, arrest someone for petty offences without getting approval from their supervisor.
So, it’s a very extensive overhaul at the police department, which now is in jeopardy.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, what did the filing say about President Trump’s intentions?
STEPHEN JANIS: It said that the Trump administration was concerned about law and order. That violent crime was out of control. That somehow the police department would be hampered, I think, it was implying. In other words, that this consent decree, and the 25 or other consent decrees that are currently operational around the country, were somehow inhibiting.
And that they had to look at the new policy that Trump had promulgated through his executive orders, and see if it was applicable, or at least was being assisted by these consent decrees.
And it’s interesting that the Trump Justice Department would choose this, particularly vehicles, as the way to gauge whether or not the federal government was helping out in the crime fighting efforts. So, that’s basically what they were saying. I mean, they’ve literally said law and order, in the actual order itself.
TAYA GRAHAM: But this isn’t limited to just Baltimore, right?
STEPHEN JANIS: No, this review is nation-wide. There are consent decrees in place across the country. There was one just recently negotiated with the Chicago Police Department, which will also be reconsidered. And there are consent decrees that have been operational for years, in cities like Cleveland that will also be under review. So, it’s possible that the Justice Department could decide to roll back all of these.
You know, I talked to a lawyer last night, to find out what actually could happen. I mean, ultimately if the judge approves this consent decree, the Justice Department, and the City of Baltimore, and other cities, have to sign off. If the Trump Justice Department doesn’t want to sign off on it, then these things basically die out.
I mean, there’s really no way to move forward without some participation by the Department of Justice. And it really seems to me, reading that statement, that actual motion to delay, that the Justice Department is not interested in these types of agreements.
TAYA GRAHAM: Seems like a lot of fears are coming true.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. A lot of people have said this before; this is going to be through to the end, you know. The Obama administration tripled the amount of Justice Department investigations, and the police departments. And it looks like; this is not going to be a policy, despite the fact that the findings of the Justice Department of the Baltimore City Police Department, and other departments, were completely, completely unconstitutional.
Which is really interesting that the Trump administration, who would, I think argue they’re strict constitutionalists — well, they’re not. Because these policies were unconstitutional, so it’s just hard to understand.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, what can the city do? Is the consent decree critical to reforming the police department?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, here is the big misnomer about this. The Baltimore City government, Mayor Catherine Pugh, the city council, has all the power in the world to execute these reforms. They do not need the federal government; they don’t need a federal consent decree.
I mean, the misapprehension of this problem, that somehow there is no way that the city government can control its police department, is absolutely ridiculous. I mean, the Mayor for one, can defund. The Mayor can order the commissioner to promulgate new orders. Which orders, would tell the police not to make arrests without consulting their superior. All the things that are in this, training, everything can be done by the Baltimore City government.
I mean, it’s kind of absurd. I think what you’re seeing here, and why these cities have turned to the federal government, is ’cause the power of the police unions. Because the FOP pretty much has negotiated contract, as the Mayor admitted to us in an interview, where they could not really schedule officers the way they want to schedule them.
And we have witnessed, in the legislative process, the fraternal order of police interfering, with a very minimal change, that the city wanted, in terms of having an Internal Disciplinary Board. Right. So, you know this shows that the police unions, I believe — and we have asked the mayor this question — are kind of running the city, or at least running the department. Because everything in that consent decree is absolutely within the purview of the power of the mayor.
The mayor controls the purse strings; the mayor controls the police commissioner. The city council controls the purse strings; they can all implement these changes if they want. And I think we have to think from a local perspective, in many of these cities.
If the Trump administration is not going to step in, then these cities have to do their job, and manage their police departments. And if they don’t do that, nothing is going to change.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham, and Stephen Janis, reporting for The Real News Network in Salisbury, Maryland.