In a memo made public this week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated that the federal government will play a smaller role when it comes to investigating police misconduct across the country.
The U.S. Department of Justice said this week it will review its past agreements with law enforcement agencies nationwide.
In 2014, the DOJ and Portland Police Bureau reached one such agreement. It found police in the city had exhibited a pattern of using excessive force, especially with people suffering from mental health problems. The settlement followed several high-profile incidents in Portland.
In a new memo made public Monday, Sessions asked for a review of consent decrees between the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and police departments across the country.
Sessions wrote it’s not the role of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies. In the memo, Sessions said local control and accountability are necessary for local policing.
The memo follows a speech Sessions gave last week in St. Louis in which he said the anti-police climate has hurt morale in law enforcement agencies across the country.
“Unfortunately, in recent years, law enforcement as a whole as too often been unfairly maligned and blamed for the crimes and unacceptable deeds of a few in their ranks,” the attorney general said.
The memo underscores a pro-law enforcement message that has emerged out of President Trump’s Justice Department. At this point, the agency appears to be positioning itself as less willing to act in a court of appeals role — investigating police misconduct in departments across the country. Such an approach was a hallmark of the DOJ’s civil rights section during the Obama administration.
It’s unclear how the direction from Washington D.C. will affect the local settlement agreement in Oregon.
“My reaction when I read it was, ‘Oh my God the sky is falling, we worked so hard on that agreement,’” said Amanda Marshall, the U.S. attorney for Oregon at the time the settlement was reached. (Marshall resigned in 2015 amid an investigation into a relationship she had with a subordinate.)
This week, Marshall said that since the DOJ is the plaintiff in the settlement, it would be possible for it to pull out of the agreement.
But that’s not happening just yet. Former Justice Department officials said if it did, it would be something the federal judge overseeing the case, Judge Michael Simon, would also need to sign off on.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon said so far there have been no changes based on the new Sessions memo.
“We will continue to pursue outcomes that both protect the civil rights of all community members and preserve the safety of law enforcement officers,” said Kevin Sonoff, public affairs officer for the Oregon office.
Officials with the city of Portland are still trying to determine what the memo means.
Michael Cox, a spokesman for Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, said the city is still in active discussions with the Department of Justice about implementing the settlement.
“The administration is sending signals that they are willing to walk away from the Obama administration’s civil rights agenda when it comes to local police forces,” Cox said. “We are committed to positive police reform in the city of Portland.”
Nationally, police unions, which represent rank-and-file officers, have reacted positively to what they’re hearing from Sessions. Portland Police Union officials didn’t return a request for comment.
Those who investigated police at the Department of Justice during the Obama administration said they’re devastated by Sessions’ new direction. Former federal officials said they were exposing and creating solutions for structural, systemic problems in police departments across the country.
Jonathan Smith, the former chief of special litigation at the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said he’s troubled by Sessions’ memo. Smith oversaw the formation of many of these federal-local agreements from 2010 to 2015.
“I read the memo as saying, ‘This is a retreat by the Department of Justice from enforcing the Constitution when it comes to law enforcement,’” Smith said. “I believe he’s going to cease meaningful investigations of new police departments. I believe he’s going to instruct the Civil Rights Division to not enforce existing consent decrees.”
Smith said he’s worried about the places where consent decrees are being negotiated.
This article has been updated since it was first published to reflect additional reporting on the memo and information from former Justice Department employees.