Attorney General Review of DOJ Consent Decrees Threatens Youth of Color

By Clarence Okoh

On April 3, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a memorandum from Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordering a review of the department’s use of consent decrees with cities and law enforcement agencies with documented histories of violent police misconduct. These measures are court-ordered agreements between the DOJ and law enforcement agencies to make structural reforms to local policing practices and policies to ensure the rights of all community members are respected.  The Attorney General and the Trump Administration have expressed skepticism at the value of consent decrees despite their effectiveness at surfacing “patterns or practices” of systemic rights violations and violent policing tactics used against low-income communities, communities of color, young people, and individuals with disabilities. This new effort from Attorney General Sessions is the latest in the administration’s attempts to implement a failed law and order framework for federal criminal justice and law enforcement policies. 

The high-profile police killings of young Black people—including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray and Korryn Gaines in Baltimore, Renisha McBride in Detroit and Laquan McDonald in Chicago—spurred a national conversation on both individual acts of police misconduct and broader, underlying implicit bias and systemic failures of the criminal justice system to protect the civil liberties and safety of communities of color. Under Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch in the Obama Administration, DOJ leveraged consent decrees to investigate these “patterns and practices” of police misconduct and initiate reforms that strengthened the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Advocates for youth should be particularly distressed by this recent development. Data makes it clear that youth of color have disproportionate contact with law enforcement in nearly every measurable way despite committing crime at similar rates to their White peers. For example, Black young men are stopped by police at 2.5 times the rate of young White men, and Black young women are referred to law enforcement from school at over twice the rate of their White counterparts.  In a recent DOJ investigation, one young person in Chicago vividly describes policing as so omnipresent that his neighborhood feels like an “open air prison,” a sentiment that powerfully captures the role of many law enforcement agencies as an occupying force in communities of color. The over-criminalization of youth of color in schools and in their neighborhoods erodes trust in policing and disrupts pathways to careers, higher education, and social mobility.

Jeopardizing the role of federal oversight into abusive policing practices could further marginalize many of our most vulnerable young people and is counterproductive to the growing bipartisan consensus around the value of proven strategies like community policing in achieving safe communities.  In spite of DOJ’s irresponsible perspective, local leaders in Baltimore, including Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, for example, remain steadfast in moving forward in the consent decree process they agreed to in January with the Obama Administration.  They understand that doing business as usual was harmful to their residents—particular to youth and young adults—and did not promote safety, accountability, or trust.

Instead of wasting limited public dollars on failed strategies, the administration should look to strategies developed by local elected officials, law enforcement, youth, and community leaders a outlined in the Report on 21st Century Policing and  in Cities United’s Strategic Resource for Mayors on Police-Involved Shootings and In-Custody Deaths. Both detail evidenced-based approaches that build trust between communities and law enforcement by creating accountability and transparency. More broadly, robust investments in youth-serving systems, including education, workforce, and health care, should be incorporated into any federal, state, or local anti-incarceration and anti-violence strategy.

Federal accountability and oversight in communities that have failed to promote fair and equitable treatment has provided a vital safety net for young people of color disproportionately victimized by law enforcement. Threatening to undo the roles of consent decrees in creating safe communities is both antithetical to the notion of police accountability, and endangers the capacity of DOJ to achieve its mission to “promote a peaceful and lawful society where the civil rights of all persons are valued and protected.” Youth of color deserve safety—not just from violent crime but from violent, abusive systems as well.