The Justice Department recently announced an investigation into a Massachusetts police department to determine whether the agency has engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.
Federal prosecutors will determine whether the Worcester Police Department, the latest department to receive federal oversight, has a pattern of excessive use of force or discriminatory police conduct based on race or gender, the DOJ said in a statement.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Justice Department launched similar investigations into police departments in Minneapolis, Kentucky and Phoenix. In June, the department launched a sweeping civil rights investigation into the Louisiana State Police when the agency faced backlash over the deadly 2019 arrest of Ronald Greene.
The investigations, which again became a priority under the Biden administration, are often resolved with a consent decree, according to the Justice Department, which requires agencies to meet specific targets before federal oversight ends. While consent decrees have been credited with successfully improving some of the country’s 18,000 police departments, some officials have criticized the court-mandated plans for being expensive, time consuming and ineffective elsewhere.
How does a pattern-of-practice study work?
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act empowered the Justice Department’s civil rights division to investigate systemic police misconduct. The department may launch an investigation for any number of reasons, including a community complaint, a high-profile case of police misconduct or media attention, said Christy E. Lopez, a Georgetown law professor who led the Department of Justice’s investigation. Justice led in Ferguson, Chicago. and other cities.
There is often “fierce backlash,” Lopez said, but a few mayors and police chiefs have “sincerely welcomed” the investigations, which could take more than a year, depending on the size of the department.
The probes focus on systemic issues such as discriminatory policing, improper use of force, First Amendment violations, gender bias and unlawful searches, detentions and arrests, the Justice Department said. Investigators are reviewing police reports, watching arrest videos, observing academy sessions and talking to community members to determine if there is any unconstitutional behavior and what causes it, Lopez said.
“They’re trying to get a very thorough understanding of whether their accountability mechanisms regarding investigation, discipline and oversight are appropriate, whether their training is appropriate, whether the agency is doing everything it can to detect misconduct and address it as quickly as possible. catch.” possibly to prevent it from spreading and becoming part of the culture,” she said.
What are the results of these studies?
Of nearly 70 investigations conducted between 1994 and 2016, federal officials closed 26 cases without finding a pattern or practice of police misconduct, according to a 2017 report from the Justice Department.
If that pattern is found, the department negotiates a reform agreement — usually a consent decree overseen by a federal court and an independent observer, said Danny Murphy, a police reform consultant and former deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department.
“You can’t just review your policy and training, you have to perform in accordance with the policy and training,” Murphy said. “That’s generally where agencies have had the toughest time under consent decrees, managing performance and increasing performance to the level necessary to be deemed compliant with the consent decree.”
There are currently about 15 consent decrees in force in police departments across the country, Murphy said. He said consent decrees are terminated when the law enforcement agency has completed the terms of the agreement and complied with them for an agreed time, usually two years. While some agreements are terminated after a few years, the process typically takes a decade or more, Murphy said.
More:AG Garland reverses Trump-era policy limiting consent decrees in police investigations
Are decrees of consent effective?
In a February letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Republican Representative Yvette Herrell demanded that the Justice Department end Albuquerque’s consent decree because it has made it more difficult for law enforcement to fight crime. Albuquerque had spent nearly $25 million on its consent decree and had a record homicide rate in 2021, Herrell wrote.
“This decree of consent has been in effect for more than seven years, has cost millions of dollars and has not made our state’s largest city any safer or improved officer retention,” Herrell wrote.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, previously told USA TODAY that consent decrees could exacerbate tension between police and communities.
The process can be slow, Murphy said. Agencies should install mechanisms earlier in the process, such as body camera audits and inspections, to better track agent performance and resolve issues more quickly.
“I’ve seen changes happening in the departments where I work that wouldn’t have happened without the consent decree,” Murphy said. “Hopefully, in the future, everyone can work on more efficient ways to deliver the necessary results to complete these consent decrees more quickly.”
Lopez said she has seen many cases where departments are slow to implement reforms outlined in consent decrees and more aggressive enforcement could increase the pace. If the agency fails to comply, it could be held in contempt and fined or the agency’s officers could face jail time, but she said such punishments are extremely rare.
She said she’s never seen an agency meet all the requirements of a consent decree, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t work.
Departments that go through the process often have fewer cases of unlawful violence, fewer lawsuits, fewer arrests, decreases in racial disparities in arrests, as well as lower crime rates and higher clearance rates, Lopez said. She pointed to New Orleans, where she said there was better reporting and resolution of sexual assault cases, and Ferguson, where she noted millions of dollars in fines being turned down, as examples of unique kinds of success.
“The DOJ needs to develop a definition of success that is realistic,” she said. “It can’t just be, ‘Do everything based on this consent decree.'”
Contributors: Kristine Phillips, USA TODAY; The The Bharat Express News