WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department late Monday asked a federal judge for more time to “review and assess” a proposed agreement to overhaul the Baltimore Police Department, saying it needed to determine how it might interfere with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new focus on fighting violent crime.
The request for a 90-day continuance came three days before a scheduled hearing before a federal judge, and just hours after Sessions announced he had ordered a sweeping review of the Justice Department’s interactions with local law enforcement, including such court-enforceable improvement plans with troubled police agencies.
The department cited several reasons for the requested delay, including new Justice Department policies that federal officials say are aimed at reducing crime as well as a new memo that seeks a review of existing or proposed consent decrees.
If granted, the request would effectively put on pause a process that could lead to a sweeping overhaul in the policies and practices of the Baltimore police force. The two sides reached agreement on a consent decree earlier this year before Attorney General Loretta Lynch left the Justice Department.
The department said it was aware of the need for police reform in Baltimore but added that the city “has made progress toward reform on its own and, as a consequence, it may be possible to take these changes into account where appropriate to ensure future compliance while protecting public safety.”
The filing echoed a far-ranging memo made public Monday that called for an immediate “review of all Department activities,” including “existing or contemplated consent decrees,” which were a staple of the Obama administration’s efforts to overhaul agencies after racially charged incidents.
A department spokeswoman would not elaborate on which consent decrees would get a fresh look or describe the potential outcomes.
In addition to Baltimore, the review also renewed questions about what could happen to a proposed consent decree with Chicago’s police department after a report released in the final days of Lynch’s tenure found officers there had violated the constitutional rights of residents for years. Sessions has not committed to such an agreement and has repeatedly said he believes broad investigations of police departments risk unfairly smearing entire agencies and harming officer morale. He has also suggested that officers’ reluctance to aggressively police has contributed to a spike in violence in some cities.
He reiterated that concern in the memo, adding that “local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
While agreements that are in negotiation, or have not yet been reached, could now be in the balance under new leadership, it would be harder to change the consent decrees that already exist in cities such as Cleveland, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Ferguson, Missouri.
Though there is a mechanism that permits the Justice Department to seek to modify existing agreements that are overseen by a court, most judges would not be sympathetic to amend an agreement for purely political reasons, said Jonathan Smith, a civil rights attorney in the Obama administration who oversaw negotiations with troubled police agencies.
He said it was possible that a consent decree in Chicago could still be reached — both sides reached an agreement in principle earlier this year — because of political pressures.
“Whether that agreement will be any good and effective, I think is much harder to know,” Smith said.
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