Jeff Sessions’ effort to restrict consent decrees won’t affect Newark

"… no matter what, we're going to continue to follow what the consent decree says and change the mindset in the police division," the city's top cop says.

As his last act as Attorney General, Jeff Sessions limited federal authorities’ ability to crack down on problem police departments by using consent decrees, but officials have said it won’t have any impact in Newark.

Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said that no matter what the memo says, his police department will continue to comply with the consent decree it entered into in 2016 with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve training, accountability and more under the watch of a court-appointed monitor.

The consent decree came after a federal probe uncovered civil rights abuses by Newark officers. Between 2009-12, 75 percent of pedestrian stops with a documented reason were unjustified, the probe found.

And contrary to Sessions’ position, Ambrose said that federal oversight can be a good thing in policing.

“So no matter what, we’re going to continue to follow what the consent decree says and change the mindset in the police division. It didn’t get this way overnight and won’t end overnight,” Ambrose said Friday. “But I’d have to say that oversight and the consent decree of the feds helped this police division get back on track.”

Sessions signed the memo before resigning Wednesday at the direction of President Donald Trump. Now, to enact a consent decree, the Department of Justice to provide more evidence of wrongdoing besides unconstitutional behavior, get additional approval from government officials, according to the New York Times.

The memo also says a police department should be released from the consent decree if it can prove it has made the required improvements. Generally, an agreement should be limited to three years, “absent a compelling justification” for it to be longer, the memo says.

The former Attorney General had already made his position on consent decrees clear, ordering staff last year to review existing agreements including those in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland to see if the DOJ was overstepping and infringing on local police department’s right to govern themselves.

At that time, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka vowed that Newark would continue to abide by the consent decree. He said that since the agreement was approved by a U.S. District Court, any changes would require court intervention.

The federal monitor appointed to oversee Newark Police Department’s progress, former New Jersey attorney general Peter Harvey, said the same thing in an interview last year with NJTV. He did not return requests for comment Friday.

In an interview Friday, Ambrose said that consent decrees are a useful but costly way to fix “systemic issues” in police departments. In Newark, he said, the total cost will be $7.4 million over five years.

“We are lucky to have a firm but fair monitor in Peter Harvey. And retraining is always good, just to follow up and see if it’s working,” he said.

“And on the other hand, what [Sessions’] memo says makes some sense: Rather than going right to the federal government, there is a pecking order in municipal policing, and it’s not a bad idea to have the county and the state AG looking at your practices.”

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal — who was among 18 attorneys general who have called on Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to recuse himself from the special counsel’s Russia probe — slammed Sessions’ decision.

“Consent decrees are one of the many tools available to the federal government to strengthen trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. It is deeply disappointing that, on his way out the door and apparently over the objection of the Justice Department’s career attorneys, former Attorney General Sessions imposed new rules that undermine such efforts,” Grewal said in a statement.

“In New Jersey, we will continue to work collaboratively with our county and local law enforcement agencies to strengthen police-community relations and find other, innovative solutions to build community trust.”

In his two-year review of the Newark Police Department, federal monitor Peter Harvey said the department had made progress in implementing body-worn and dashboard cameras but noted it lacked personnel with appropriate expertise in areas like data gathering, training, community engagement and domestic violence to create lasting reform.

Staff member Dave D’alessandro contributed to this report.

Rebecca Everett may be reached at reverett@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccajeverett. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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