Days of the Feds Suing Local Police Departments Might Be Over

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 08, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One of the primary rules of independent investigations is you can't investigate yourself. And when it came to investigating state and city police departments, that responsibility often fell to the feds -- the Department of Justice. Under the Obama administration, those investigations often resulted in determinations that local police departments were acting illegally, along with subsequent lawsuits settlements.

But that practice appears to be changing under President Trump. Trump's new Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last week that the federal government should not be spending money on lawsuits against local police departments. So what does that mean for DOJ investigations in the future?

Either Or?

Sessions was speaking before the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington when he said the Justice Department should be more focused on helping local police develop better crime fighting techniques. "We need, so far as we can, in my view, help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness," Sessions said. "And I'm afraid we've done some of that. So we're going to try to pull back on this, and I don't think it's wrong or mean or insensitive to civil rights or human rights."

Even as nationwide crime rates remain at historic lows and incidents (or at least recorded incidents) of police using deadly force are on the rise, Sessions offered a dark vision of crime in American big cities, "driving a sense that we're in danger." Sessions indicated that investigating police departments for civil rights violations might do more harm than good: "One of the big things out there that's, I think, causing trouble and where you see the greatest increase in violence and murders in cities is somehow, some way, we undermine the respect for our police and made, oftentimes, their job more difficult."

Sessions Settling

Not only could we see fewer DOJ investigations in the future, Sessions's comments could also indicate changes to past prosecutions. The Justice Department remains in negotiations with the City of Chicago after finding its police department engaged "in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution." But, as the New York Times points out, Sessions remains skeptical of the report and "prospects for a deal now look doubtful."

We may not get a more clear indication of how Sessions's DOJ will handle police department inquiries until the next allegations of police misconduct.

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