STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is calling for a big change at the Justice Department. He wants federal authorities to approach local police in a different way. Rather than investigate cases of local wrongdoing, Sessions wants to emphasize partnerships with police, so he ordered the Justice Department to review its agreements to overhaul police forces. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is covering this story. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: How big a change is this?
JOHNSON: Really big. Remember over the last eight years on this program, we've talked so many times about the Obama Justice Department findings about police in places like Ferguson, Mo., New Orleans, Newark. DOJ back then uncovered patterns of wrongdoing like excessive force, racial discrimination, poor training.
The new Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to stop doing a lot of that digging. He thinks it hurts police morale and public safety. But the attorney general's policy extends far beyond any new investigation, Steve. He's ordered a broad review of agreements DOJ has already struck to overhaul police.
INSKEEP: Like one in Baltimore, I guess.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Just last night, the Justice Department asked a judge to delay a hearing to consider the agreement the Obama team already struck to overhaul police in Baltimore. That hearing had been scheduled for Thursday. The Justice Department wants three more months to think about it, and its court filings cited this new memo by Attorney General Sessions and progress the city has already made in building trust with people who live there.
Problem is, Steve, Baltimore's mayor, a Democrat, and the police commissioner both say they don't want any delay. They want to keep moving forward with these changes. And, Steve, it's not clear yet, but this shift by the Trump Justice Department could also extend to Chicago where the Obama team wrote a scathing report, but no consent agree has been negotiated.
INSKEEP: Carrie, I'm just thinking about checks and balances - federal and state authority and how it's supposed to fit together. You kind of rely on the Justice Department to come in when there's some kind of huge abuse at a local level. Is the Justice Department going to stop doing that at all?
JOHNSON: Well, the attorney general - the new attorney general says he still wants to step in when needed to help local police and to investigate, perhaps, excessive force in serious incidents of wrongdoing, cases where maybe a bad apple or two on a force may have committed a crime. But that's a big shift from what the Obama Justice Department had been doing.
The Obama folks including Vanita Gupta who led the civil rights unit there told me a major retreat is underway. They say they uncovered patterns - systemic patterns across police forces, not just one or two bad apples in places like Chicago and Baltimore and all over the country. Their view is to protect public safety, you need to expose these problems and fix them.
INSKEEP: You use the word systemic. That's got to be a big part of the debate here where the people agree there are big, systematic problems or whether it's just a few individuals that need to be looked at from time to time.
JOHNSON: And when you're talking about enforcing federal law, Democrats and advocates for police reform will tell you there is a federal law on the books passed by Congress after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles that allows the Justice Department to come in and investigate unconstitutional policing in local departments.
INSKEEP: OK, Carrie. Thanks very much as always.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
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