Police Reform's Best Tool: A Federal Consent Decree


One of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the closing decades of the 20th century is also one of the most overlooked.

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, passed following the savage 1991 beating of African American motorist Rodney King by four LAPD officers and the catastrophic Los Angeles Riots a year later, gave the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice an extraordinary mandate.

One of the law's provisions empowered the government to sue police agencies anywhere in the country if they exhibited a “pattern and practice” of using excessive force and/or violating people's civil rights—and compel them, under what's known as a “consent decree,” to change those practices.

Since the law came into effect 20 years ago, two things have become apparent: how resistant many police departments remain to fundamental reform; and how critical, therefore, the consent decree has been—first, in forcing police departments to jettison their often brutal racist, and unaccountable warrior-cop cultures; and second, in transforming them into organizations committed to policing constitutionally and with legitimacy among the populations they serve.

Currently about 20 cities have entered into consent decrees or “memos of understanding” with the Department of Justice (DOJ), usually under threat of civil rights lawsuits filed by the DOJ if they refused.

The departments and police agencies vary widely: they have included Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Oakland, New Orleans, Portland, Oregon, Cleveland, New York City, Detroit, the New Jersey State Police, the Virgin Islands PD, and, most recently, departments in Seattle, Albuquerque, NM and Newark, NJ.

The importance of these consent decrees can't be overstated.

Achieving transformational change in rogue police cultures is a very difficult task. In some cases, it has taken more than a decade. One hurdle is getting cops to understand there's something wrong in the way they had been operating. Many consider their work-cultures to be consistent with their self-image as upholders of law and order in the community.

Another hurdle: while police officers and their thinking is far more diverse than 20 years-ago, old, bad habits are nevertheless still being passed down from one cop generation to another. They die hard. And police of a certain generation don't like change, particularly liberal reform that they perceive only makes their jobs harder and more complex, and that holds them more accountable for their actions.

Third, big-city police departments rarely investigate and monitor themselves impartially especially when the abuse is systemic. Many street cops are loyal first and foremost to each other. Solidarity matters more to them than some abstract constitutional principle.

And far too often in investigating police abuse, chiefs have put not “embarrassing the department” ahead of finding and revealing the truth about institutionalized abuse.

In cities like Oakland, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Seattle, such concerns have fueled notable resistance to consent decrees.

In Oakland, for example, anger over the decree among veteran officers grew so extreme that after nine years of non-compliance, a federal judge temporarily ordered the department placed under a receiver who had total control over the department.

In 2001, Cincinnati was forced into a consent decree after a police shooting ignited three days of rioting. The city's extraordinarily powerful police union was vociferous in its opposition to the decree, and the rancor between the Cincinnati PD and the court-appointed outside monitor became so pronounced that on at least one occasion the monitor was actually kicked out of police headquarters.

It took seven years for Cincinnati cops to finally come into compliance.

Recently in Seattle, nearly 125 officers sued the DOJ in protest over that city's consent decree, charging that it had caused, as the Seattle Times reported, “'a bold, new disregard for police authority in the streets of Seattle,” and a “hesitation and paralysis” among officers taking action on the streets.

In Los Angeles, following the King beating and the riots, two police chiefs charged with reforming the LAPD failed miserably without a consent decree. And eight years were wasted in the reform process before a reform-minded chief—William Bratton—was finally brought in from outside the department. With the critical assistance of a consent decree mandated by yet another LAPD scandal, Bratton was finally able to transform its culture.

And in New Orleans and New York City, Mayors Mitch Landrieu and Michael Bloomberg, respectively, unsuccessfully appealed their court-ordered consent degrees. Landrieu argued that the consent decrees for both the city's police department and its local prison system were too costly; and Bloomberg claimed the NYPD's stop-question-and-frisk policy was both necessary and constitutional.

In short, resistance to consent decrees is one of the best arguments for their effectiveness. They provide a crucial, best-practices blueprint for policing constitutionally—one with detailed and specific cultural-change goals and metrics to be met, often under the demanding, watchful eye of an outside federal monitor and a federal judge with the power to insure their compliance.

Most importantly, as Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska recently told the New York Times, the provisions of the consent decrees have “defined a set of best practices, conditions for effective and constitutional policing, that are now well known throughout the country.”

Consent decrees by themselves, are not panaceas.

It also takes a police chief with the strength of character, physical energy, sense of urgency, political skills, and conceptual ability to overcome the forces of reaction and inertia within a hostile department to see a consent decree through to the end.

Reform chiefs, therefore need to put highly competent believers in reform in charge of developing and implementing a compliance plan, while building a strong political constituency for reform.

In the end, what consent decrees do is force change. That's what they ultimately did with fiercely resistant police departments in Pittsburg, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, and what they will ultimately do in Oakland and New Orleans, even if it takes another decade.

Because, as any good cop knows, sometimes force is necessary.

Joe Domanick is associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay and West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. His new book, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD will be published by Simon & Schuster in February 2015. He welcomes comments from readers.

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