When Policing Goes Wrong


Since 1994, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has investigated and reached settlements with more than 20 state and local police agencies.

Much controversy surrounds these so-called “consent decrees,” which have mandated reforms of police practices in agencies ranging from the municipal forces of Los Angeles, New Orleans and Albuquerque, to state agencies like the New Jersey State Police.

Investigations of Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD are currently underway.

Do these consent decrees actually reduce officer use-of-force and racial profiling? Have they significantly improved policing in the agencies investigated?

Perhaps just as importantly, what standards should be used for answering those questions?

As the nation examines the future of 21st century policing, that's a critical challenge.

But it's also important to frame the challenge correctly. A thorough and fair assessment of the DOJ efforts involves very difficult judgments—and a careful assessment of the complex and often ambiguous data about policing.

A simplistic approach, however, can muddy the public debate—and make future reforms much harder to achieve.

A recent Frontline article in The Washington Post illustrates the point. Not only did it veer completely off the track; but it muddied the main challenges of police reform, rather than clarifying them. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the story, and quoted in it.)

The article headlined “Forced Reforms, Mixed Results,” began with three examples of the allegedly extravagant costs or questionable results of DOJ investigations.

  • Reform in Detroit took 11 years, during which time the police department had a revolving door of five chiefs;
  • The Los Angeles consent decree “cost taxpayers an estimated $300 million;”
  • In New Orleans, reform “fueled departures” of officers and “deterred some officers from proactive policing.”

Each of these points is easily rebutted. The Detroit case is an easy one. In addition to its well-known financial distress, the Detroit city government has been notoriously dysfunctional for years. (One mayor during the reform period is now serving 28 years in prison for corruption.) It is simply bad reporting to attribute the police department's long-standing problems to the DOJ investigation.

The claim that the Los Angeles consent decree cost $300 million begins to collapse under close scrutiny. Most of the reforms were recommended by the 1991 Christopher Commission, in response to the highly-publicized beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

Over the next nine years, the LAPD tried but failed to implement the reforms. Only then did DOJ intervene. In short, the LAPD was already committed to the reforms DOJ mandated. It is inappropriate, therefore, to attribute the entire $300 million to the DOJ consent decree.

Flawed Analysis

The “cost” analysis in “Forced Reforms” is deeply flawed in several respects. The reporters took no account of the millions of dollars spent by the cities in question over the years to settle lawsuits over police abuse.

New York City, Chicago and Baltimore also spend huge funds annually to settle such suits. If the DOJ-mandated reforms were found to have reduced suits and payouts, one could argue that the reforms actually save the city's taxpayers millions of dollars.

But the “Forced Reform” reporting team did not examine this issue.

Even more important, the dollar costs of police abuse are only one part of the story. Police misconduct exacts an enormous human toll: People unjustifiably shot and killed or severely beaten; the collateral costs to victims—including medical care, work days lost and family impacts.

There are also broader social costs: Alienation among communities of color, the principal victims of police abuse, and the resulting social and political conflict– which the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing highlighted earlier this year.

How can we put a dollar price on this human cost? The “Forced Reform” story is silent on this, and is simply morally obtuse in its analysis of “costs.”

In New Orleans, the story reports, the DOJ reforms caused officer morale to plummet and provoked officers to leave the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) for jobs in other police departments.

This is hardly a sign that the DOJ reforms failed.

In fact, it suggests success in establishing high standards for police conduct. And if some officers leave for this reason, the NOPD is better off. Replacing them with new officers trained and committed to high standards will change the culture of the NOPD.

By framing the “Forced Reforms” story the way they did, the reporters seem to be saying that we should not require the highest standards of our police officers.

Evaluating the DOJ

How, then, should we evaluate DOJ investigations and settlements?

Any serious attempt faces a number of serious challenges, and this commentary cannot begin to discuss then all in detail.

What follows is an outline of a framework for this daunting challenge.

  1. Policing is a complex enterprise, and it is extremely difficult to measure “success.” (Consider, for example, the similar problem in education.)
  2. Police organizations are difficult to change, and we should not expect immediate improvements.
  3. Use-of-force data are highly ambiguous. The departments that DOJ investigates, by definition, did not adequately collect data on force incidents. Thus, there is no meaningful base line for assessing the impact of reforms on this issue. In fact, it is most likely that the reforms will produce an increase in reported uses of force. To the uninitiated, this looks like a bad outcome, but can also be seen as a sign of success.
  4. Citizen complaints are likely to increase as a result of reform, as citizens have more confidence in the reformed complaint process. Here again, official data that might suggest an adverse effect of reform is actually a sign of progress.
  5. Payouts in police abuse cases are extremely difficult to interpret. First, they are highly distorted by the few extreme high payout cases, and are not a reliable indicator of broader patterns of police conduct. Second, official data typically reflect the year of the settlement, not the year of the incident, and cannot be interpreted as an indicator of the quality of the department in the year of the settlement.

These are some of the most important possible metrics for assessing the impact of DOJ-mandated reforms. But there are many others.

The important point is that each indicator involves data that are very problematic, and require sophisticated handling.

At a time when policymakers, law enforcement leaders and the general public are grappling with some of the tragic consequences of police misconduct, we need to pay special attention to the complexities of measuring and evaluating such conduct—as well as the efforts underway to address it.

A national task force, such as the ones commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences, is needed to thoroughly consider the relevant issues, the proper criteria for evaluation, and the best way to resolve the problems with the relevant data.

Samuel Walker is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the author of 14 books on policing, civil liberties and crime police. He welcomes comments from readers.

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