Sessions Orders Review of Consent Decrees

by HRC Staff

The LGBTQ community understands first-hand how important respectful, culturally competent policing is.

Post submitted by Breanna Diaz, HRC Legislative Counsel

The LGBTQ community understands first-hand how important respectful, culturally competent policing is. Too often, LGBTQ people are afraid to turn to law enforcement for help because they worry they will face discrimination, hostility or indifference. Many law enforcement agencies have made significant progress to improve the ways they serve the LGBTQ community, but many others have much work to do. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions took a step backwards.

On March 31, Sessions ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to undertake an extensive review of agreements between the federal government and several law enforcement agencies—these are known as consent decrees.  Consent decrees between the federal government and law enforcement agencies require agencies to adopt policies and practices intended to improve the agency’s relationship with the community it serves. Many of the consent decrees now under review, including Ferguson, Cleveland, New Orleans, Seattle, and Baltimore, address the historic and disproportionate discriminatory policing of the LGBTQ community. The decrees require agencies to adopt bias-free policing policies and for officers to partake in LGBTQ cultural competency training.  Any attempt to undermine reform efforts contained in the consent decrees would harm LGBTQ persons, particularly LGBTQ people of color and members of the transgender community.

Vanita Gupta, head of the civil rights division at the U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama administration, and Corey Stoughton, senior counsel, wrote a response to Sessions’ order, emphasizing the need for the consent decrees to remain untouched.

“Our reports gave voice to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and other marginalized communities who bear the brunt of such unlawful policing and have long advocated reforms,” they wrote. “It would be an abdication of the Justice Department’s congressionally mandated responsibilities to ignore these problems.”

Today, despite Sessions’ request that the decision be delayed, a federal district court judge approved Baltimore’s consent decree. While the Department of Justice responded to the decision calling it “rushed” and saying the result will make the city “less safe,” the reality is that it is long overdue.”

A 2015 report from the Williams Institute found LGBTQ people and people living with HIV experience pervasive discrimination and harassment by law enforcement. For example, in a 2014 national survey, 73 percent of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV surveyed reported having face-to-face interactions with law enforcement; of those interactions, 21 percent encountered hostile attitudes from officers.

Such discrimination undermines the community’s trust in law enforcement and dissuades LGBTQ people who are victims of crime from reporting incidents to unresponsive and sometimes hostile officers. One of the goals contained in consent decrees between federal government and cities is to encourage bias-free policing. Only through inclusive policy and practice required by the consent decrees currently under review can law enforcement meet the needs of the LGBTQ community.