As the Obama administration has increased oversight of local law-enforcement agencies, using a 21-year-old law to impose reforms on police forces that show a pattern of civil rights violations, there are questions about the effectiveness of the interventions, says The Marshall Project. In cities like Detroit and New Orleans, officials criticized the high cost of federal reforms, including multi-million-dollar fees paid to monitors who make sure local officials comply with mandates. Some local officials have refused to accept what they view as “meddlesome dictates,” preferring to fight the demands for change in federal court. Even where local leaders have embraced Washington's prescriptions, Justice Department officials have increasingly found themselves returning to grapple a second time with problems they thought they had fixed. “What we want to do is make sure that we are opening investigations and seeing sustainable reforms through to the end,” said Vanita Gupta, head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
In cases like North Charleston, S.C., DOJ has stepped in behind local prosecutors to examine whether police officers in a shooting used “objectively unreasonable force” against a suspect. The department seemed to take that approach in announcing it would investigate the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose spinal cord was severed after he was arrested by the Baltimore policee. It is the more systemic investigations that have both raised public expectations and sometimes fallen short of lasting reforms. Justice Department officials acknowledge that some earlier reform plans have fallen short. At times, they said, the department chose benchmarks that did not adequately measure the conduct they were trying to change. In other instances, federal officials did not sufficiently monitor or enforce the reforms they had sought.