Pittsburgh’s Historic Police Decree ‘Did Not Stick’

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The first federal consent decree for police reform was an 83-paragraph court-enforced agreement in 1997 that turned Pittsburgh into a widely emulated model department, for a time. Since then, there have been decrees in 19 other cities, from little Steubenville, Oh., and Ferguson, Mo., to Los Angeles, Seattle and, as of Friday, Baltimore, reports the New York Times. Though widely regarded as a net positive, consent decrees, based on a 1994 statute that gave the U.S. attorney general the authority to combat systemic constitutional violations, have had varying degrees of success and have fallen in and out of favor, buffeted by political winds. They were pioneered by President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department, largely rejected by President George W. Bush and vigorously revived by the Obama administration. Now, under President Trump, their future is in doubt. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of federal interventions in law enforcement agencies and tried to delay Baltimore’s new decree.

The Times revisited the first police consent decree. Many of its issues, including poor training, racial bias, union opposition and the high cost to carry it out, could have been plucked from last week’s headlines. Pittsburgh curtailed strip searches, began documenting traffic stops, gave officers “cultural diversity” training and tracked civilian complaints. From the outset, the police union balked, warning of “more drive-by shootings, more drugs” and a spike in crime. Four years after the consent decree ended in 2002, a new mayor, elected with union backing, took office and promptly dismissed Chief Robert McNeilly. “The only realistic way to look at this is that it did not stick,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has written extensively about police reform and who studied the Pittsburgh experience.

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