By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Trump administration's decision to review federal agreements with troubled police departments nationwide could imperil ongoing reform efforts, particularly in Baltimore and Chicago, civil rights advocates said on Tuesday, even as city officials vowed to continue pursuing improvements.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' memorandum ordering the review endangers one of the key legacies of former President Barack Obama, whose Department of Justice reached more than a dozen agreements with police departments over constitutional abuses.
Many of the Obama-era investigations took place amid a string of high-profile police killings of minorities that sparked protests across the country.
Sessions' order will likely have its most immediate impact on Baltimore and Chicago, both of which have been negotiating reform settlements with the department since before Donald Trump became president in January.
The memo was released on Monday, the same day that the Justice Department asked a judge to delay an agreement to revamp Baltimore's beleaguered department for three months just days before the judge was set to approve the deal.
Officials in both cities said they would press ahead with reforms despite the memo. But advocates said the review could undermine those efforts and suggests the Justice Department under Sessions will not undertake future civil rights investigations.
"He's talking about the federal government turning its back on a pattern and practice of racialized policing that goes back decades in this country," said Jeffrey Robinson, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "To suggest that the government should just leave it to local police departments is just frightening."
Police unions, however, have expressed frustration with some of the court-approved settlements, known as consent decrees, and they welcomed the shift in policy.
"From a rank-and-file police officer's point of view, we're very happy," said Bill Johnson, head of the National Association of Police Officers. "These agencies have come under a very heavy hand from the Department of Justice."
'PUNCH TO THE GUT'
The Justice Department is authorized to investigate whether police departments engage in an unconstitutional "pattern and practice," such as unnecessary force or racial profiling.
Under Obama, it probed two dozen departments and reached reform agreements with 15, more than either of his predecessors, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.
In Baltimore, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis called the move a "punch to the gut" at a Tuesday news conference.
Though he said reforms would proceed, Davis said the court-enforced agreement is important because it ensures implementation even if he and Mayor Catherine Pugh leave office.
But the head of the Baltimore police union, Lieutenant Gene Ryan, said the union should have more of a voice in the process.
"I want to meet with Donald Trump," he said, according to the Baltimore Sun newspaper. "I want to tell him what's really going on."
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson likewise said they remain committed to reforms despite Sessions' order.
A former Obama administration official who oversaw federal police reforms at the Justice Department for six years, Christy Lopez, said the review leaves her most concerned about Chicago.
"I've never seen a city that cries out more for a consent decree than Chicago," said Lopez, now a visiting law professor at Georgetown University.
A Chicago pastor and retired police officer, Richard Wooten, said activists would hold Emanuel and other city officials accountable to push reforms despite the Sessions order.
"This is a sad day, but on the flip side, we saw this coming," Wooten said.
Trump has often decried Chicago's rising murder rate, threatening in January to "send in the feds."
It is not clear whether the Justice Department could secure changes to existing consent decrees, such as those governing police departments in Cleveland; Newark, New Jersey; Seattle; New Orleans; and Ferguson, Missouri. That would require approval from federal judges, some of whom have made clear they will not accept changes without good cause.
Some unions have chafed under consent decrees, calling them costly, ineffective and stigmatizing to officers. Sessions' memo touched on that issue, saying the department should ensure police officers are not tarnished by the "misdeeds of individual bad actors."
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has advocated for police reform, said the government has only investigated "the worst offenders" - 25 departments out of some 18,000 since 2009.
Robinson, the ACLU lawyer, said his group and others would consider legal action to enforce agreements but warned that any retreat by the federal government would make it harder to monitor reforms.
"If the federal government is silent, it is sending a message to local police departments: do whatever you want and we will look the other way," he said.
(Additional reporting by Julia Harte and Ian Simpson in Washington, Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago and Tom James in Seattle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)