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AG Merrick Garland lifts Trump-era restrictions on consent decrees to watch police

President Joe Biden listens as Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on April 8, 2021, on gun violence prevention measures.

Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday lifted Trump-era restrictions on consent ordinances that the Department of Justice has been using to enforce reforms in police departments alleged to be widespread wrongdoing.

Garland, who fulfilled an election promise made by President Joe Biden, said in a memorandum that the Justice Department "will revert to the traditional process" that took place before former President Donald Trump's administration placed severe restrictions on the civil rights instrument.

"Together we will continue the Department's legacy of promoting the rule of law, protecting the public, and working with state and local government agencies to achieve these goals," Garland said in the memo sent to US attorneys and other DOJs Leader.

The policy reversal is taking place amid historically strained relationships between police agencies and black communities. A number of police deaths in the past year, notably the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

Derek Chauvin, the white ex-cop who kneeled on Floyd's neck more than nine minutes before he died, is charged with murder. The recent shooting near Minneapolis by Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old black man, sparked further protests in Minnesota.

Consent ordinances are judicial agreements that can be used to remedy violations of the law or systemic misconduct that have been identified in federal investigations against state or local law enforcement authorities.

For example, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the DOJ opened an investigation by the Ferguson Police Department into "alleged pattern or practice of illegal misconduct" and other issues. Less than a year later, the DOJ said it had identified "a number of patterns or practices of unconstitutional behavior".

A federal judge approved the consent decree between Ferguson and the DOJ in April 2016, which required major changes in the police force.

Just before he was fired by Trump in November 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions signed a memo restricting the Justice Department's use of consent regulations.

Changes to the sessions included a requirement that consent orders must be approved by top management and that they contain an expiration date, rather than only going into effect once the court believes the case can be closed.

"I am picking up the November 2018 memorandum," Garland said in his memo.

As a presidential candidate, Biden vowed that under his administration, the DOJ "will again use its authority to eradicate unconstitutional or unlawful policing".

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