Do Federal Consent Decrees Reduce Police Misconduct?

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A study by three researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas offers cautious support to arguments that federal consent decrees prod police departments into reducing racial basis.

The study, published in the latest issue of Criminology & Public Policy, found a reduction in the number of civil rights suits launched against a selected group of law enforcement agencies placed under Department of Justice oversight under the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

“Reductions in such (civil rights) filings may signal increased satisfaction with police agencies and a move toward reduced systemic police conduct,” concluded the researchers, who examined consent decrees in 23 jurisdictions.

Their findings come as Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a sweeping review of the practice last month, arguing that such decrees “reduce morale” of police officers.

The study makes clear that its findings are not definitive, and that more research is necessary—pointing out the limited number of jurisdictions under study and the wide variations in the “socio-legal” environment across the country.

“Law firms may be more aggressive in one jurisdiction, or citizen legal activity could be more significant in one area compared with another,” the study said.

The authors also conceded that even if misconduct is reduced, there is no assurance that the change will be long-lasting or institutionalized.

Nevertheless the authors say DOJ oversight appears to be a valuable tool in raising public confidence.

“Once problematic agencies are identified, it could be reassuring to know that the U.S. Justice Department, through the consent decree process, possesses a tool for competently reducing the incidence of misconduct within America’s law enforcement agencies,” the study said.

The study was conducted by Zachary A. Powell, Michele Bisaccia Meitl and John L. Worrall. It’s available free here until June 22, 2017.

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