From Pittsburgh to NYPD, a Look at Federal Monitoring of Big-City Police


Anticipating federal court supervision of the New York City police “stop and frisk” operations, takes a look at U.S. Justice Department consent decrees involving big-city police departments under the 1994 federal anticrime law. President Bill Clinton’s term saw consent decrees in Pittsburgh, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, and New Jersey. The only major consent decree begun during George W. Bush’s term was in Oakland. “The Department of Justice walked away from the big cities during the Bush years,” said Samuel Walker of the University of Nebraska-Omaha. “Nobody touched Chicago or New York City, when there arguably was a need for federal investigations.”

Consent decrees have grown in length and intricacy as successive cases present new dilemmas for police reform. “The Department of Justice has learned how complex policing is and how complex remedies are,” Walker said. Compared with the NYPD settlement or consent decrees in New Orleans or Seattle, Walker said the first settlement agreement for the Pittsburgh Police from 1997 “looks like ancient history.” Cincinnati successfully completed its reform program and ended federal oversight in 2009. Consent decrees and federal monitoring are credited with reforming the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rampart scandal, which involved narcotics officers who dealt seized narcotics, committed shootings, rapes and bank robberies, and framed suspects. David Sklansky, a Berkeley School of Law professor, said LAPD’s consent decree was an unqualified success. “There’s been a dramatic change in the culture of the LAPD,” Sklansky said.

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