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Accountability the main concern should Ferguson’s consent decree be scuttled

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks to law enforcement officials Friday morning at the Thomas Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. (March 31, 2017)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered the Justice Department to review all agreements between the department and local police.

It’s been more than a week since U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he wanted to review all agreements between the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and local police departments — a move that could have a major impact in Ferguson.

If the consent decree that came after the August 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown goes away, there would be no independent monitor to oversee the significant changes to the police department’s training and operations, including a new use-of-force policy. It’s not clear who would pick up the accountability baton.

That said, according to University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger, reforms in Ferguson are on more solid footing because the Justice Department and the city actually signed a deal, and a judge would have to approve any changes.

Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss said that, no matter what happens, “we’re committed to the reforms. And we're working to make those things happen."

Police Chief Delrish Moss, who joined the Ferguson Police Department in May of last year, greets colleagues, including Al Eickhoff, left, who previously served as interim police chief.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss laughs with colleagues before a speech by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on March 31.

Sessions announced the review March 31, the same day he spoke to law enforcement officers in St. Louis. In a private meeting afterward, Moss said, Sessions told officials that consent decrees don’t emphasize “fighting crime” and are “expensive.”

"Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal agencies,” Sessions wrote in a memo to the federal agency.

That same week, a federal court denied the DOJ’s bid to delay a consent agreement in Baltimore. Moss noted that the federal judge working with Ferguson may not agree to changing or throwing out the consent decree.

Changing of the guard

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said he doesn't expect the push to change the police department to vanish if the consent decree goes away. He added that he’s noticed a change in the way Justice Department officials have dealt with Ferguson since Trump took office.

"In the time we've already been in front of the judge, the temperament of the DOJ and the tone in which they treat us has been different since the election," Knowles said. He added that he still hasn't heard from federal officials about Sessions' review.

"It's far less punitive and a lot more collaborative on the reform side of things, which I think is good. Because that's really what we want. We want collaborative reform."

Part of the consent decree process is having an independent monitor, which has cost the city about $350,000 since August, said Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood. Knowles observed that the monitor has sat “in the room while the DOJ and Ferguson hash everything out." But Seewood said he expects the monitor to play a bigger role in the next few years, the same with other people working on the consent decree that “hopefully we can kind of tap into.”

Justice Department officials gave no indication about how long the review of consent decrees would last, or how they would measure whether the agreements were striking a balance between protecting the civil rights of Americans and promoting public safety.

Private parties can step in to move a civil rights case forward, Schlanger said, but that will vary from city to city.

Washington University law professor Kimberly Norwood said she did not believe Judge Catherine Perry, who is overseeing the case in Ferguson, would allow the federal government to pull back on the deal.

Norwood is a member of the team monitoring the consent decree but didn’t speak on behalf of it. She said she’s heartened that Knowles has promised to do everything he can to enforce the decree.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.