Through unwritten instructions to the Department of Justice's staff, the Trump administration is quietly undermining systems for civil rights enforcement. ProPublica reports the DOJ is moving away from seeking settlements with consent decrees, which create court oversight for steps that must be taken to address civil rights abuses.
Consent decrees have been used to desegregate schools and reform police departments. Reaching settlements in cases brought by the DOJ without them eliminates the court's ability to make sure the institution accused of wrongdoing actually changes its ways.
Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler and Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore gave the informal instructions to the rest of the DOJ ranks, according to ProPublica, telling federal attorneys to only seek consent decrees when absolutely necessary.
"At best, this administration believes that civil rights enforcement is superfluous and can be easily cut," Vanita Gupta, the former acting head of the DOJ’s civil rights division under President Obama, told ProPublica. "At worst, it really is part of a systematic agenda to roll back civil rights."
In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for a review of these types of agreements made with police departments nationwide and the DOJ sought a 90-day delay for a consent decree to reform the Baltimore Police Department.
During his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Sessions expressed his opposition to the practice, saying. "I think there is concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong." He added, "These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that."
Agreements were reached with 14 police departments during the Obama administration, including in Ferguson, MO, following police killings of Black men. Current DOJ officials couldn't undo already existing decrees without going back to court, but not seeking them in future cases will mean less legal oversight ensuring civil rights reforms actually take place.
Department of Justice spokesperson Devin O'Malley declined Refinery29's request for comment.