MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is big news this week from the U.S. Justice Department about several major police departments, news that could have reverberations around the country. Federal civil rights lawyers reached an agreement to overhaul the police force in Baltimore. You remember that the death of a young man in police custody there set off days of protests that occasionally turned violent. The very next day, top DOJ officials released a scathing report about the Chicago Police Department describing a pattern of excessive force, even against juveniles, failing to train officers properly, even in techniques that could better protect them, and failing to even minimally investigate complaints.
But also on Friday, the Justice Department praised the Philadelphia Police for making tremendous progress in implementing changes recommended two years ago. You might recall that we have focused on these issues a number of times on this program so we wanted to get an overview of these developments from NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. She's here now to talk about all this. Carrie, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Oh, really happy to be here. Thanks.
MARTIN: So let's start with Baltimore. As we mentioned, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody nearly two years ago put that department's policing strategies in the national spotlight. What's the agreement there? How is the Justice Department hoping to make changes?
JOHNSON: Michel, this is personal. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was sworn into office the same day Freddie Gray was buried. This week, after months of negotiations, DOJ unveiled an agreement to help make changes to policing in Baltimore. Here's what the deal says - cops are going to work harder to de-escalate situations before they go shoot or tase people. They'll stop and search people only when they have a legitimate legal basis to do so. And they say they'll do a better, more thorough job of investigating sexual assault claims. Officials in Baltimore say they've already equipped police there with body cameras and improved training, and there will be an independent monitor in place to make sure they stay on the right path.
MARTIN: So that's Baltimore. What was the Justice Department saying about Chicago?
JOHNSON: Well, for the last 13 months, the Civil Rights Division at Justice has been investigating a pattern of discrimination and excessive force by Chicago police. Authorities say this investigation was so sprawling they put together the biggest ever team of Justice lawyers on the case, and they've been rushing to finish before the Trump team takes office.
MARTIN: So what did the federal investigators find in Chicago?
JOHNSON: Massive problems with training, no accountability for bad cops, hardly any investigations into excessive force at all, and police making racist remarks and other police telling on them. The situation has been so bad that police officials and the review board don't even know how many people police in Chicago have shot. And cops involved in these violent situations essentially read from a script to justify their actions covering up for partners who engaged in wrongdoing.
MARTIN: You know, I have to ask though if there's a message in the timing here.
JOHNSON: Well, they certainly have been racing to finish before Donald Trump is inaugurated. There are some big questions out there about whether the Trump Justice Department is going to follow this approach moving forward.
MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, Mr. Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department, Senator Jeff Sessions, had a confirmation hearing this week. What message did he send? Or did he have something to say about policing strategies and these issues?
JOHNSON: Well, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions wants the DOJ to be a partner and a friend to police, not an overseer. Here's what he told senators this week.
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JEFF SESSIONS: Law enforcement, as a whole, has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable actions of a few of their bad actors. They believe the political leadership in the country has abandoned them. They felt they have become targets. Morale has suffered.
JOHNSON: Jeff Sessions also told lawmakers, cities during the Obama administration had been pressured into settling some of these cases. He says DOJ needs to be a lot more careful.
MARTIN: So the question becomes what about these agreements that have been reached? What happens to them when the Obama administration leaves office and the Trump administration takes office?
JOHNSON: It's not entirely clear. Sessions was pressed on this by Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, a Democrat from Hawaii, this week. He didn't answer the question clearly, but he did say that eventually these consent decrees will expire and that he didn't commit to not reopening or making changes to consent decrees already in place. Although, obviously if they're overseen by a court, a judge would have to sign off, too. So if they're already in the courts in some fashion, that will require an additional step for the Trump team to undo. If they're not yet, they're, Michel, a lot easier for Trump's folks at Justice to back away.
MARTIN: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
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