April 11, 2017

Senator Harris Joins Colleagues in Letter to the Attorney General on the Administration’s Troubling Review of Consent Decrees

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris joined 15 Senate Democrats in pressing Attorney General Jeff Sessions for answers on the Department of Justice's plan to review consent decrees between the federal government and local law enforcement agencies. The Senators asked Attorney General Sessions to lay out the impact of the review, including if the Department of Justice's actions could result in the termination or modification of existing consent decrees.

"Consent decrees offer both parties the opportunity to negotiate a mutually beneficial reform structure that seeks to both protect the constitutional rights of citizens and improve the working conditions and safety of police officers," the Senators wrote. "It is a false choice to prioritize one over the other. These carefully crafted agreements are the products of long and thorough investigations and negotiations, and are subject to court approval. To undo the progress made by the DOJ and various police departments is to undermine the collaborative nature of these agreements."

The letter was also signed by Senators Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The full letter is printed below:

Dear Attorney General Sessions,

We write to express our deep concern with regard to recent actions taken by the Department of Justice to review and delay existing and contemplated consent decrees, and to request clarification as to how the Department plans to carry out such reviews.

On March 31, 2017, the Department released a memorandum directing a review of "existing or contemplated consent decrees." This memorandum requires a review of virtually every DOJ operation that touches on law enforcement, including collaborative reforms, compliance reviews, and grants. This portends a significant policy shift with serious implications for both police departments and communities. To reopen these consent decrees would virtually upend years of work by community leaders and police departments.

The federal government has long played a role in ensuring that police departments serve communities in a non-discriminatory manner consistent with the U.S. Constitution. Consent decrees offer both parties the opportunity to negotiate a mutually beneficial reform structure that seeks to both protect the constitutional rights of citizens and improve the working conditions and safety of police officers. It is a false choice to prioritize one over the other. These carefully crafted agreements are the products of long and thorough investigations and negotiations, and are subject to court approval. To undo the progress made by the DOJ and various police departments is to undermine the collaborative nature of these agreements. In fact, many police departments, , welcome consent decrees, because they often offer increased training for law enforcement officers and provide clear operating standards. In this way, consent decrees ensure that both police officers and the communities they are sworn to serve are protected.

To that end we seek the responses to the following questions:

  • What factors, data, or information does DOJ expect to consider when reviewing existing or contemplated consent decrees between DOJ and police departments? We request that your answer does not refer back to the principles summarized in the March 31 memorandum; we instead request a list of specific factors DOJ expects to consider during its review.
  • To what extent will DOJ consider findings contained in the DOJ investigation reports in reviewing existing and contemplated consent decrees?
  • How does DOJ expect to consider public comments submitted to DOJ during consent decree negotiations?
  • Does DOJ anticipate consulting with impacted communities during its review of existing or contemplated consent decrees? If so, how does DOJ expect to engage with community members? How will community input factor into DOJ's review process?
  • Does DOJ anticipate consulting with police departments or other jurisdictional entities which have been investigated, are defendants in litigation, or are otherwise parties to consent decrees during its review of existing or contemplated consent decrees? To what extent will input from these police departments or jurisdictions inform DOJ's review process of existing or contemplated consent decrees?
  • Does DOJ expect as a possible outcome of its review process proposals to modify, alter, or amend existing consent decrees? If so, what set of factors does DOJ expect to consider in making a determination to modify, alter, or amend a consent decree? Please be specific.
  • Does DOJ expect as a possible outcome of its review process to terminate existing negotiations for contemplated consent decrees or dismiss the underlying civil rights complaint filed in court? If so, what set of factors does DOJ expect to consider in making this determination?

We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.

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