My piece of two weeks ago for National Review about consent decrees, police, and the Jeff Sessions memo (briefly summarized here) drew a detailed response from Radley Balko in the Washington Post, whose writings on police misconduct I often link here. I’ve now responded in a second NR piece, arguing that while there is much common ground to be found on the issues here, I will stick with seeing the memo as generally on the right track in articulating proper limits to the feds’ constitutional role (especially under the post-Civil War Amendments) in restraining misconduct by lower levels of government. “The very real and sometimes dire failings of local governments do not change the most important fact about our federal government, which is that it is one of limited powers.”
The feds plan to be less heavy-handed in using consent decrees to micromanage states and cities, and there’s a good case for that, I argue at National Review. Alas, as I explain, national media bungled the story in November by characterizing Jeff Sessions’s memo as if it were primarily aimed at reducing oversight of police. “Not once in its seven pages does the word ‘police’ even appear.”
My short piece doesn’t take up the question of how the well-documented problems of consent decrees in other areas are to be weighed against the possible advantages of the device in curbing abuse-prone police departments. But at least some advocates of police reform and accountability have expressed doubts about whether the process, which can sometimes take political pressure off the local authority, really works as advertised [David Meyer Lindenberg, Tim Lynch, Scott Greenfield; see also John McGinnis]
- “Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights” laws give police officers interrrogated over suspected misconduct a wide range of rights not enjoyed by general citizenry under like circumstances [Alex Tabarrok, earlier] Followup: “A new paper, The Effect of Collective Bargaining Rights on Law Enforcement: Evidence from Florida, suggests that police union privileges significantly increase the rate of officer misconduct” [same]
- Courts should retain power to scrutinize arrests motivated by First Amendment retaliation even when probable cause is also present [Ilya Shapiro and Matthew Larosiere on SCOTUS case of Lozman v. Riviera Beach, Florida]
- “Aurora police union: City should let cop fired over hidden cameras used to spy on ex-wife go back to work” [Hannah Leone, Aurora, Ill., Beacon-News]
- “Even if consent decrees don’t do squat to fix police impropriety,” the appointed monitors make out well [Scott Greenfield]
- “Hancock County, W.V. officer is convicted, sentenced to 18 months in prison for beating up drunk motorist who displayed insufficient respect. Officer: The trial court erred by letting the jury know about those other times I beat up people who failed to respect my authority. Fourth Circuit: We’re OK with it.” [John K. Ross, Short Circuit, on U.S. v. Cowden]
- “Internal NYPD files show that hundreds of officers who committed the most serious offenses — from lying to grand juries to physically attacking innocent people — got to keep their jobs, their pensions, and their tremendous power over New Yorkers’ lives” [Kendall Taggart and Mike Hayes, BuzzFeed]
From Chicago to Baltimore and beyond, don’t assume that consent decrees with higher levels of government (the U.S. Department of Justice included) are the best route to police reform. John McGinnis, Liberty and Law:
Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, has welcomed the lawsuit [by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan] and is looking to acquiesce in a consent decree which will create a new set of rules for the police department and a monitor to enforce them.
This collusive suit is a bad idea. To be sure, the Chicago Police Department needs reform, but this method reduces democratic accountability, imposes unnecessary costs, and most of all runs the risk of letting more people die from uncontrolled crime. And it is very unlikely to do what is most needed: eliminating or reducing the protections against discipline that police enjoy in union contracts or under civil service laws.
For an example of the kind of consent decree that is likely to be agreed upon, look at similar litigation in Baltimore….
…the greatest problem for lawful policing is that police departments have difficulty firing the few bad actors disproportionately responsible for civil rights violations because departments face constraints imposed by union contracts and civil service laws. The Baltimore consent decree does not rewrite these contracts or laws nor it is clear that it would have the power to do so. And I expect no different result in Chicago. Thus, the consent decree may retard the most important kind of police reform by giving a false sense of progress.
My new Cato post applauds administrator Scott Pruitt for breaking with past Environmental Protection Agency policy under which it has settled not-necessarily-adversarial lawsuits by agreeing to issue regulations (dubbed by critics “sue and settle“). Pruitt’s new steps toward transparency and public access are welcome but easily reversed by a successor, which is “why Congress should proceed to consider legislation to curb sweetheart pacts on a more lasting basis.”
- Power to regulate interstate commerce includes power to keep property owner from evicting a prairie dog? Sounds rational to Tenth Circuit [Ilya Shapiro and David McDonald]
- Dimock, Pa. episode was central to anti-fracking lore including movie “Gasland,” now judge has overturned $4 million verdict in case [Timothy Cama, The Hill]
- “EPA Employees Organize Against Taxpayers” [NPR via David Boaz on Twitter]
- Sweetheart consent decrees (“sue and settle”) enable agencies to bypass notice-and-comment rulemaking in adopting controversial rules, as with EPA natural gas plant rule [WLF]
- Judge rebukes Delaware Riverkeeper in FERC pipeline case [Erin Mundahl, Inside Sources]
- On the way out, President Obama designated vast tract of Atlantic ocean as “monument,” forbidding commercial fishing. Irrational as policy, as law, and as procedure [Jonathan Wood]
There’s much that needs reforming about the Baltimore police department, but the collusive sweetheart agreement between two lame duck administrations, transferring power over department practices to outside activists and the usual monitor setup, has a great deal wrong with it. George Liebmann of the Calvert Institute, who has been critical of the settlement, wrote up his objections in a lengthy communication to the court, excerpted at Free State Notes.
More from Tim Lynch at Cato on the DoJ’s changing posture:
…Sessions is making a grave mistake if he thinks previous DOJ investigations did not uncover severe problems in American policing. The problems are there. The real question is how to address them. In the education area, teacher unions are the main obstacles to reform. Police unions are the major obstacle to sensible accountability measures for police organizations. But over the long run, local mayors and city councils must make a sustained commitment to proper oversight of police. It is unrealistic to expect the Attorney General or a federal monitor to do their jobs.
Yesterday the city of Baltimore signed a 227-page consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice putting the city’s police department under wide-ranging federal control for the indefinite future (earlier).
The decree (document; summary of high points) mingles some terms that rise to genuine constitutional significance with others that no court would have ordered, and yet others that appear not to be requirements of the law at all, but at most best practices. Many are virtually or entirely unenforceable (“professional and courteous” interaction with citizens). Whether or not the decree results in the less frequent violation of citizens’ rights, it is certain to result in large amounts of new spending and in the extension of the powers of lawyers working for various parties.
In November David Meyer Lindenberg of Fault Lines, the criminal justice website, wrote this opinion piece about the failure of DoJ police reform consent decrees to live up to the high claims often made for them (more: Scott Shackford, Reason). Our consent decrees tag traces the problems with these devices in a variety of public agencies such as those handling children’s and mental health services, as well as the budgetary rigidity they often impose.
Since Congress passed enabling legislation in 1994 in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, the Washington Post and Frontline reported in a 2015 investigation, “Twenty-six [police] investigations — a little more than half of them since President Obama took office — have led to the most rigorous outcome: binding agreements tracked by monitors. More than half were consent decrees, meaning they were approved and managed in federal court.” As of that point only Ohio, at 4 agreements, had had more than Maryland, at 3.
This 2008 report from the Alabama Policy Institute by Michael DeBow, Gary Palmer, and John J. Park, Jr. takes a critical view of the decrees’ use in institutional reform litigation (not specifically police), and comes with a foreword by Sen. Jeff Sessions, now the nominee to replace Loretta Lynch as Attorney General of the U.S. Speaking of which, there’s something so weird about some liberals’ eagerness to hand the keys to big-city police departments over to Mr. Sessions. It’s as if they think once Main Justice is calling the shots it won’t think of using that leverage on issues like, say, sanctuary cities.
Will the departing Obama administration Department of Justice persuade the departing administration of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to lock the city into an expensive, rigid police consent decree? [George Liebmann, Baltimore Sun]
13 years after Ross Sandler and David Schoenbrod’s groundbreaking book Democracy by Decree, small groups of litigators, experts, special masters and other insiders continue to run many government agencies under what are known as consent decrees, court-enforced agreements to resolve litigation. Children’s services are particularly affected: “the Illinois child-welfare system is burdened by 10 different consent decrees, including one that has lasted nearly 40 years.” But the decrees often work against the real interests of the intended beneficiaries, argue Maura Corrigan and John Bursch in a paper for the American Enterprise Institute. By design, it is made hard to get out from under a decree, which can leave the small controlling group in control indefinitely: Connecticut’s 25-year-old child-welfare consent decree “contains 22 outcome measures that all must be met and sustained for six months before exit,” which has never happened.