Are police consent decrees an asset? Depends on who you ask
ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Minneapolis Police Department will face the intense scrutiny of a federal program after a state investigation spurred by the killing of George Floyd concluded that the city’s officers stop and arrest Black people more than white people, use force more often on people of color and maintain a culture in which racist language is tolerated.
The court enforced plan, known as a consent decree, has been credited with bringing significant reform in some places but scorned by critics elsewhere as ineffective and a waste of taxpayer money.
The 1994 crime bill gave the Department of Justice the ability to investigate police agencies for patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing, and to require agencies to meet specific goals before federal oversight can be removed. Typically, a federal judge oversees the consent decree and appoints a monitor to shepherd it.
Some agreements set a five-year timetable, but most last at least twice as long, said Danny Murphy, who oversaw consent decrees in New Orleans and Baltimore, and now consults with police departments that are under or potentially face them.
Nearly two dozen consent decrees are ongoing, even as the Justice Department pushes to make the process more efficient and less expensive. Attorney General Merrick Garland in September introduced budget caps and hearings after five years to determine if the agreements should end.
Though expensive and time-consuming, no city or agency has ever simply stopped cooperating. If that happened, the Justice Department would likely ask the federal judge to issue a compliance order, said Alex del Carmen, a criminology professor at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth, Texas, who has served as a monitor. The city or agency could be fined until it is back in good standing, del Carmen said.
University of Nebraska-Omaha Professor Emeritus Sam Walker, another expert in police accountability, said consent decrees have largely succeeded in reducing use of force and unnecessary traffic stops, and increasing de-escalation practices. He cited New Orleans as an example.
“Back in 2012, it was one of the worst departments in the country but they’ve made enormous progress,” Walker said.
The Justice Department investigation of New Orleans found high numbers of officer-involved shootings, botched investigations and coverups. Now, Murphy said, New Orleans police are setting a standard for others to emulate.
“It went from excessive force and no accountability on force, to a significant reduction in serious force and strong investigation of those cases,” said Murphy. He credited the consent decree with providing “an opportunity to transform in ways that would be difficult, or maybe impossible, without it.”
Success is more elusive in other places.
The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, signed a settlement agreement in 2014 after a federal investigation that followed several officer-involved shootings. But today, many elected officials and Albuquerque residents are critical of what they see as a lack of progress, as well as the cost.
Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell in February urged Garland to end the consent decree, noting that city has spent nearly $25 million on it, including $10 million in monitor payments, and it hasn’t resulted in less crime: Albuquerque saw a record number of homicides in 2021.
“This consent decree has been in place for over seven years, cost millions of dollars, and failed to make our state’s largest city safer or improve officer retention,” Herrell wrote.
The monitor’s latest report, released May 11, offered hope. It cited a “substantial increase in training effectiveness” starting in the second half of 2021, and credited a new external investigation unit for improved examinations of use of force incidents.
In some cases, the success of the reform depends on who you ask.
Ferguson, Missouri, drew federal scrutiny after a white police officer fatally shot a Black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, in August 2014.
Neither a local grand jury nor the Justice Department found wrongdoing by the officer. But a Justice Department investigation found patterns of racial bias within the police department, including excessive force against Black people, petty citations and baseless traffic stops. Ferguson officials agreed to a consent decree in 2016.
Six years later, the changes have been significant. The once nearly all-white police department is racially split. Traffic stops are less common, systems have been set up to hear resident complaints, and the municipal court no longer uses fines and fees as a revenue source.
James Knowles III was mayor of Ferguson from 2011 until 2020, when he couldn’t run again due to term limits. He said that while the consent decree gave people “some peace of mind that the changes would be lasting,” many reforms were implemented prior to the agreement.
Ferguson leaders estimate the city will spend $6 million to $10 million on the consent decree by the time the process is complete — a steep price in a small city.
And in some ways, Knowles said, Ferguson is worse off because the federal oversight only makes it harder to fill the multitude of officer vacancies.
“What’s the outcome?” he asked. “We have less officers. I’ll be so bold as to say we certainly have less-experienced officers. I wouldn’t say we have a better cadre of officers. I’m not saying they’re worse, but I won’t say they’re better.”
But at a status hearing earlier this month in federal court, Ferguson Monitor Natashia Tidwell cited significant progress in developing plans for areas such as officer training and community policing. Now, she said, the focus is on implementation.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry lauded Ferguson’s efforts, especially given the obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Perry said.