Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday reversed a Trump-era policy limiting the number of consent decrees the Department of Justice can use in pushing for changes at police departments and other agencies in abuse and misconduct cases.
Garland, in a memo to all U.S. attorneys and DOJ leaders, said the agency will ''return to the traditional process that allows the heads of litigating components to approve most settlement agreements, consent decrees, and the use of monitors in cases involving state and local governmental entities.''
''This memorandum makes clear that the Department will use all appropriate legal authorities to safeguard civil rights and protect the environment, consistent with longstanding Departmental practice and informed by the expertise of the Department’s career workforce,'' he added.
The policy reversal comes amid a series of deaths involving police and Black men and women within the past year, including the shootings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last May and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, A Minneapolis suburb, last Sunday.
Consent decrees are court-approved legal agreements reached without litigation. With it, a judge can keep tabs on a police department to make sure it is complying with court orders.
Miriam Krinsky, the founder of Just and Fair Prosecution, told CNN the change needed to happen as the previous policy deeply damaged memos ''that inhibit the ability to advance all-important reforms in policing."
"As the ongoing and never-ending pattern of tragic police shootings around our nation demonstrate, our country must use every tool at its disposal to seek justice, transform the criminal legal system, and earn community trust," Krinsky told the news outlet. "These issues have never been more dire. And let's hope that this is the first of many acts by our new administration and new AG to turn the corner and bring a new vision forward to policing, police reform and enhanced police accountability."
The move is significant for the Biden administration, which aims to hold police forces accountable in cases where they have been found to have violated the law.
''Consent decrees and underlying pattern and practice investigations are one of the most powerful tools any administration has to address policing issues,'' Kristy Parker, a veteran of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who now works at the nonprofit legal group Protect Democracy, told The New York Times.
''Unlike passing legislation, it’s a tool the administration controls,'' she said. ''The ability to conduct exhaustive investigations and reform police departments by negotiating consent decrees allows an administration to produce a public airing of the systemic failures that produce excessive force and to work with jurisdictions to make meaningful comprehensive changes.''