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Let the Police Police

by Heather Mac Donald

So says Jeff Sessions, but some big-city chiefs disagree

Federal consent decrees — agreements between the federal government and a local agency to change how that agency operates — are burdensome, costly, and rarely justified. You would think, then, that when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in a memo at the end of March that he was reviewing police consent decrees, politicians and police chiefs in the affected cities would have let out a glad cheer. Instead, Sessions’s announcement produced a bizarre spectacle: Local officials proudly proclaimed themselves unable to function in the absence of federal control. Therein lies a tale about law enforcement in the Black Lives Matter era.

Sessions’s March 31 memo signaled an overdue federal course correction regarding policing, coming after the hostile Obama years. The Obama administration had slapped an unprecedented number of consent decrees on police departments, guided by the belief that policing was shot through with systemic racism. The methodology used by the previous Justice Department to determine whether a police agency was engaged in a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional policing was deeply flawed. The civil-rights attorneys evaluated officer activity against racial-population ratios rather than against racial rates of criminal victimization and offending; if, say, officers arrested blacks at a higher rate than their representation in the local population would predict, that disparity would constitute proof of discrimination, regardless of whether blacks committed a disproportionate amount of crime. The resulting decrees cost tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, funneled into endless paperwork and the wildly overpriced salaries of federal monitors.

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