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Civil rights groups alarmed over retreat on police reforms

ERRIN HAINES WHACK and SADIE GURMAN

FILE - In this July 30, 2015 file photo, a man walks past a corner where a victim of a shooting was discovered in Baltimore. In a city that became emblematic of police abuse, excessive force and callous treatment of young black men, Baltimore's mayor and commissioner say they are eager and ready to change not only the culture of law enforcement, but the practice. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Civil rights groups reacted with alarm Tuesday, while law enforcement organizations expressed relief, after the Trump administration signaled it may back out of federal agreements that compel several police departments around the U.S. to curb racial bias and excessive force.

In a memo made public this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all Justice Department consent decrees that force police departments to overhaul their practices, saying, "It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies."

Consent decrees, which are enforceable by the courts, were put in place by the Obama Justice Department in such racially fraught cities as Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri. A decree worked out under the Obama administration is awaiting approval in Baltimore, which erupted in riots in 2015 over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. And an agreement is being negotiated in Chicago.

NAACP President Cornell Brooks called the move by the Trump Justice Department "somewhere between chilling and alarming."

"Consent decrees are the means by which you provide a hedge of protection, civil rights and civil liberties," Brooks said. "Why would our attorney general upend and undo that? This review and potential reversal represents a potentially catastrophic, life-or-death consequence for cities where citizens feel like they're under siege."

But James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, welcomed Sessions' memo as "gratifying."

"If a consent decree is warranted, a consent decree should be imposed," Pasco said. "But in a lot of places, decrees are punitive in nature and do absolutely nothing to improve the climate of the city."

He complained that consent decrees can make police officers look like villains, when "the vast majority of police officers are performing heroically every day."

The Sessions memo represents a dramatic break with the Obama administration, which saw the federal government as essential to holding local police departments accountable for unconstitutional practices. Consent decrees have been used to force departments to overhaul training on the use of deadly force and to root out mistreatment of blacks and Hispanics.

President Donald Trump has taken an emphatic pro-police, law-and-order stand. And in signaling a possible retreat from consent decrees, Sessions advanced what has been dubbed the "Ferguson effect" — the unproven theory that heavy scrutiny of police has made them less aggressive, leading to a spike in crime in cities like Chicago.

"The misdeeds of a few bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe," Sessions wrote in the memo dated Friday.

Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, a black man who died after a New York City officer put him in a chokehold in 2014, expressed frustration over the Trump administration stand, saying, "When all else fails, the federal government is our safety net."

"In a case like this, if we don't get an indictment, who do we turn to if the attorney general is going to look the other way and say, 'Hey, it's not my fight,'" Carr said.

The Obama Justice Department opened roughly two dozen investigations of police departments, and 14 of them ended in consent decrees, including in Miami; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Newark, New Jersey.

While any future consent decrees could now be in jeopardy, it could be harder to change the agreements that are already in place in some cities. Though there is a mechanism that permits the Justice Department to try to modify existing agreements, experts say most judges would not be sympathetic to amending a consent decree for purely political reasons, such as a change in administration.

Some police chiefs are vowing to continue with the reforms outlined in their consent decrees, regardless of who is in office.

"We believe that the changes have improved our training, our responses, our accountability and our unwavering collaboration with our community to fulfill the terms of our agreement," said Police Chief Gordon Eden of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In Albuquerque, allegations of excessive force and a string of about 20 fatal shootings by police in a four-year period prompted a lengthy federal investigation. A scathing report identified a "culture of aggression" and faulted police for using unreasonable force with the mentally ill.

Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner said they want the Justice Department to follow through with a court-ordered plan for fixing problems there. Chicago's police superintendent said his city will push ahead with reforms without waiting for a consent decree.

Activists are also vowing to continue to fight.

"This means we are even further from a society in which the people can feel protected by the police," said Brittany Packnett, a civil rights leader who protested in Ferguson in 2014.

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Whack reported from Philadelphia. Gurman reported from Washington.