WASHINGTON — The Justice Department late Monday asked a federal judge for more time to “review and assess” a proposed agreement to overhaul the Baltimore police department, saying it needed to determine how it might conflict with the crime-fighting agenda of new Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The government’s request for a 90-day continuance came three days before a scheduled hearing before a federal judge, and just hours after Sessions announced he had ordered a sweeping review of the Justice Department’s interactions with local law enforcement, including such court-enforceable improvement plans with troubled police agencies.
It provided an early glimpse of the attorney general’s stance on police department oversight and his ambivalence about mandating widespread change of local law enforcement agencies.
Sessions, an Alabama Republican who cultivated a tough-on-crime reputation during 20 years in the Senate, has repeatedly expressed concern that lengthy investigations of a police department can malign an entire agency. That view reflects a dramatic break from an Obama administration that saw such probes as essential in holding local law enforcement accountable for unconstitutional practices.
The federal government cited several reasons for the requested delay, including new Justice Department policies that federal officials say are aimed at reducing crime as well as a new memo that seeks a review of existing or proposed consent decrees.
If granted, the request would effectively put on pause a process that could lead to a sweeping overhaul in the policies and practices of the Baltimore police force. The two sides reached agreement on a consent decree earlier this year before Attorney General Loretta Lynch left the Justice Department.
The department said it was aware of the need for police reform in Baltimore but added that the city “has made progress toward reform on its own and, as a consequence, it may be possible to take these changes into account where appropriate to ensure future compliance while protecting public safety.”
Both the Baltimore Police Department and Mayor Catherine Pugh said a delay would threaten public trust in the process.
“We want to move forward,” Pugh told The Associated Press. “We want to work with our police department. We believe there are reforms needed.”
The filing echoed a far-ranging memo made public Monday that called for an immediate “review of all Department activities,” including “existing or contemplated consent decrees,” which were a staple of the Obama administration’s efforts to overhaul agencies after racially charged incidents.
A department spokeswoman would not elaborate on which consent decrees would get a fresh look or describe the potential outcomes.
In addition to Baltimore, the review also renewed questions about the fate of negotiations with Chicago’s police department after a report released in the final days of Lynch’s tenure found officers there had violated the constitutional rights of residents for years.
Sessions has not committed to such an agreement and has repeatedly said he believes broad investigations of police departments risk unfairly smearing entire agencies and harming officer morale. He has also suggested that officers’ reluctance to aggressively police has contributed to a spike in violence in some cities.
He reiterated that concern in the memo, adding that “local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
The proposed consent decree in Baltimore came after the Justice Department released a scathing report detailing longstanding patterns of racial profiling and excessive force within the city’s police force. The review was prompted by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose neck was broken in the back of a transport wagon, and whose death roiled the city.
Activist Ray Kelly said the requested delay threatened to undermine hard-fought efforts to heal the fractured relationship.
While consent decrees that are in negotiation, or have not yet been reached, could now be in the balance under new leadership, it would be harder to change the consent decrees that already exist in cities such as Cleveland, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Ferguson, Missouri.
Though there is a mechanism that permits the Justice Department to seek to modify existing agreements that are overseen by a court, most judges would not be sympathetic to amend an agreement for purely political reasons, said Jonathan Smith, a civil rights attorney in the Obama administration.
He said it was possible that a consent decree in Chicago could still be reached — both sides reached an agreement in principle earlier this year — because of political pressures.
“Whether that agreement will be any good and effective, I think is much harder to know,” Smith said.
Associated Press writer Juliet Linderman in Baltimore contributed to this report.