Civil Rights Department of Justice Law Enforcement

DOJ Interventions and Civilian Oversight for Law Enforcement

WHEN THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT INTERVENES, LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES HAVE MIXED RESULTS, AND THE DOJ DOESN’T TRACK LONG-TERM OUTCOMES LIKE WHETHER POLICE SUSTAIN THE REFORMS

Over the past 20 years, the US Department of Justice has intervened to overhaul 16 local law enforcement agencies plagued by officer misconduct (like frequent excessive use of force) and other systemic failures. But the Justice Dept. hasn’t closely examined the long-term outcomes of the interventions, according to Frontline’s Sarah Childress and Washington Post reporters Kimbriell Kelly and Steven Rich,who looked at the unintended consequences of those DOJ interventions, traveling to Los Angeles and some of the other 16 locations.

The reporters interviewed officials from the 16 law enforcement agencies, the federal monitors, and civil rights advocates about the interventions, their purpose, and what impacts they have on communities and law enforcement officers.

When the feds step in, they address patterns of civil rights violations, in part, by re-training officers and forcing policy changes, only leaving when the law enforcement agencies comply with most of the DOJ’s reform agreement. But once the feds leave, it’s up to the department to continue those reforms, and some backslide.

The Frontline and WaPo reporters looked at available use-of-force and budget-related data and reports from the monitors, and found that results have been mixed. Out of ten police departments for which enough data was available, use of force rates at five departments actually rose after federal intervention. In five others, use of force rates either stayed the same or dropped.

And when the DOJ steps in, taxpayers have to foot the bill. Thus far, Los Angeles has been the must expensive intervention with a price tag of $300 million for 12 years of post-Rampart-scandal federal oversight that ended in 2013. But the DOJ’s efforts produced desperately needed reforms in the scandal-plagued department.

Albuquerque is another of the more obvious success stories. The DOJ went in to address a spike in officer-involved shootings, particularly of the mentally ill. Since 2012, the Albuquerque police have dropped use-of-force incidents by 57% thanks to crisis intervention training.

For many law enforcement agencies, federal oversight lowered officer morale and led to a high officer turnover rate. During Detroit’s 11-year intervention, the police department went through eight police chiefs.

For New Orleans police officers, the DOJ’s 1996-2004 intervention was not enough to carry lasting reform. The feds returned in 2010 after cops were again racking up excessive use of force incidents and illegal stops and searches. One of the latest mandated reforms came in the form of officer-worn cameras. Capt. Mike Glasser told reporters that the enforced videotaping has stopped officers from proactive policing.

Here are a few clips, but the issue is a complex one, so be sure to go over to Frontline and read the whole thing:

Officer morale in some of the departments plummeted during the interventions, according to interviews. Collectively, the departments have cycled through 52 police chiefs as the agencies tried to meet federal demands. Some departments have struggled to sustain reforms once oversight ended, and in some cities, police relations with residents remain strained.

In interviews, Justice Department officials defended the interventions and said that in recent years they have significantly improved the reform process. Those changes have led to greater oversight of police departments and to policing that better protects the civil rights of residents, they said.

“The goal isn’t that we have a perfect police department when we leave,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general of the department’s civil rights division. “The goal is that they actually know what to do when there’s a problem.”

[SNIP]

“The police departments that we go into, small or big, are ones where there have been findings of pretty significant systemic pattern-or-practice constitutional violations,” Gupta said. “Whether they’re the worst, I don’t know. Whether they are in crisis, yes.”

[SNIP]

The Justice Department’s only broad assessment of its interventions occurred as part of a 2010 roundtable with police chiefs from some of the departments targeted. One of the conclusions: Federal officials had no universal way to measure impact and needed better data to determine whether reforms worked.

But numbers will not tell the full story, experts said.

“The hard question – have you stopped doing the things that got you into court in the first place – is something that these consent decrees seem to have trouble answering,” said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law at Columbia University who has studied reform agreements.

Justice officials said the newest generation of reform agreements, starting with Seattle in 2012 and 11 police departments since, includes benchmarks to indicate whether the reforms are taking hold. Gupta, the civil rights division chief, said Justice can then adjust as needed. She also said Justice officials are working more closely with local law enforcement and community members to build trust.

She cited federal reforms of police in East Haven, Conn., Seattle and Los Angeles as successes that have produced “transformation.”

“And transformation is more than just…enactment of specific reforms,” Gupta said. “It really is a fundamental change in how the community relates to the police department and vice versa.”
But she said once the monitoring ends, so does Justice’s involvement.

“We don’t tend to evaluate…after we have left,” Gupta said. “There’s a limit to how much we can…remain engaged with a particular jurisdiction given our limited resources.”

Some critics have complained that federal interventions leave abusive officers in uniform because the agreements target policies and practices of an agency, not individual employees. But experts said reforming departments is more important than trying to punish officers.


THE CHALLENGES OF CREATING MEANINGFUL CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Independent civilian oversight commissions are popping up in jurisdictions across the country as a way to hold law enforcement agencies accountable to the public. But how much power do they actually have to address problems within the agencies and investigate misconduct allegations?

Scripps News’ Ross Jones contacted 200 civilian oversight groups across the nation as part of a special “Focus on Force” series. Jones found that almost two-thirds of those watchdog groups don’t have their own independent investigators. Instead, the majority of the civilian panels work directly with law enforcement agencies’ own internal affairs officers.

Because most oversight groups don’t have teeth and can only make recommendations, they must rely on the cooperation of the departments they monitor.

This year, Los Angeles County officials has wrestled with whether to grant subpoena power to a planned civilian oversight commission that would be tasked with monitoring the LA County Sheriff’s Department, and how to best protect deputies’ privacy without compromising transparency and accountability. The working group tasked with making recommendations as to the reach and composition of civilian oversight recommended the commission use the county’s Office of Inspector General staff for investigation purposes.

Here are some clips from Jones’ story:

[Civilian oversight commissions] rely on police department internal affairs officers to determine if a fellow officer went too far.

And that’s troublesome, some experts say.

“They may not have asked the appropriate follow-up questions or investigated contradictions in what the officer has said,” said Samuel Walker, an expert in police oversight and professor emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

“Some (boards) do have the power to reject what internal affairs does and send it back for further investigation,” Walker said. “That’s good, but you still have to take on faith that they’ve reinvestigated, asked the questions and have got it right this time. But I think taking it on faith isn’t good enough.”

[SNIP]

Today, Walker and other experts advocate for another form of police oversight – one that reacts to complaints of misconduct and proactively audits officers’ investigations, collects arrest data and reviews department policies.

4 Comments

  • “’The hard question – have you stopped doing the things that got you into court in the first place – is something that these consent decrees seem to have trouble answering,’ said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law at Columbia University who has studied reform agreements.” (Frontline, Under Fire in South LA)

    LASD Reform III: A Case for a Truth Commission for De-Tanakaification

    Federal intervention into a local law enforcement department can have a disproportionate impact on lower level personnel, police officers, deputies and their immediate supervisors, while often giving a pass to many executives and mid-level managers (the position of police chief is another matter). In order to avoid the heavy taxpayer costs a federal consent decree (e.g., the $300 million, 12 year LAPD case), Sheriff Jim McDonnell needs to actively clean up the executive and manager ranks of the LASD. As I’ve illustrated (and others have illustrated), Mr. McDonnell does well to resolve the LASD personnel issues above all else, before federal authorities do it for him. The personnel issues—getting the right leaders in the right seats—will necessarily resolve systemic organizational issues such as the jail. As the Sheriff’s management writer, Jim Collins, says, First Who, Then What. As to the Who, it is clear to everyone that Sheriff Jim McDonnell needs an overhaul of his brain trust and leadership group.

    In my view it is profitable now to narrow the reform issue of the LASD to a particular, easy to understand example. I was going to wait until reviewing Sheriff McDonnell’s first annual report, but there may be some advantage in discussing one solution now, in the context of this story. Consider the following two recent posts:

    Koestler (November 10): “Perhaps the Tanakists are now, with bastardized irony, threatening to cloak themselves for protection in the very civil law and administrative rights they so agreeably abused and tried to deny to others during their quest for power. If so, if the Tanakists are actively exploiting Alinsky’s fourth rule – “make the enemy live up to its own book of rules” – then there are quite legitimate, alternative, no-nonsense administrative and legal ways of dealing with that management challenge.”

    LATBG (November 10): “[T]he reservoir of talent within the organization, not tainted by corruption, is losing patience with McDonnell. Part of the problem is the clock, which is no friend to reform when it involves personnel development and human resource management. The cadre of supervisors who did not play the game is of sufficient size to energize McDonnell’s reform efforts and revitalize the leadership ranks of the organization with a healthy purge of the corrupt status quo. The problem is this group is aging and retiring as we speak, taking decades of experience and valuable leadership skills with them.”

    Given LATBG’s key observation about the clock, about what an elected reformer with a clear public mandate should do ethically (and maybe usually does) within the first year of reform, but in this case has not so far done, including the corollary argument about the potential mismanagement of human resources in failing to marginalize or exorcize Tanakists from the organization, as well as delaying the identification and promotion of new, non-Tanakist leadership talent (a critical denial of labor scarcity), it is vital now to follow-up with a very simple leadership/management strategy Sheriff McDonnell could begin to employ today to handle the legal and administrative problems raised by Tanakists presently assigned to executive, management, or supervisory positions.

    A number of complaints by department members suggest that Jim McDonnell in his first full year as Sheriff of Los Angeles County has chosen a reform strategy of least cost. It is a strategy, some insist, that retains all of the benefits of being regarded as a reformer without any of the costs of being an actual, thoroughgoing reformer. The Sheriff made a hash of the personnel strategy everyone had expected he would implement: effectively holding only one class of personnel (deputies and sergeants, the ‘low hanging fruit’) responsible for Tanakism’s “working the grey” philosophy. The complaint is that Mr. McDonnell has offered Mr. Tanaka’s former loyalists (executives and managers) reconciliation with the County/LASD without holding those same personnel accountable to confess the truth of their respective former, widespread misconduct and corrupting actions that led to the abuses in the jail and elsewhere. Meanwhile, it is alleged, that lower level personnel, such as good, honest deputies and sergeants have been hung out to dry, that is, they are being held to a different standard of work performance and subject to a hypocritical environment of all punishment and no reconciliation. (Obviously, members of the farcically unprofessional, Tanaka-worshiping, Cro-magnon knuckle-dragging, ink-sporting, tobacco-chewing, Abu Ghraib-mimicking, tough guy deputy cliques in custody and patrol areas ought to be eliminated post-haste, and those particular deputies investigated for past violations of administrative issues in the same manner as executives and managers. They need to be replaced with, using shorthand, the Jack Web Malloy and Reed-types of the late-1960s, the way I was trained.)

    If this representation is accurate and fair, the decision tree looks like the following, with risk assigned to each decision:

    Sheriff Jim McDonnell Reform Options:

    Option 1: No De-Tanakaification (high risk for Sheriff in outright ignoring the public’s reform mandate);

    Option 2: Total De-Tanakaification (moderate risk for Sheriff in civil suits by personnel, especially among executives/management);

    Option 3: Partial De-Tanakaification (low risk for Sheriff in pursuing mostly lower level personnel while ignoring executives and managers).

    We do want to avoid creating a straw man. However, Mr. McDonnell may be under the impression that his moving against the remaining Tanakists in executive and management positions would be an inefficient expenditure of resources (e.g., time, labor, investigative resources, ill will, bad press, headaches with the Board of Supervisors, County Counsel, and maybe with the District Attorney’s office, et cetera). Maybe this is one of the backroom Los Angeles deals, as someone suggested. This amounts to an argument for ‘letting sleeping dogs alone.’ I do not agree with such a position, but I do understand its logic, its rationality. Yet the one argument denied to such a position is that it is a position of least cost. In the long run, it may prove to be the position with the most residual cost for the organization and the County. Indeed, there is, objectively, a more powerful public integrity and economic efficiency argument the other way.

    Consider these words from conflict resolution strategist Robert Rotberg (Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions, 2000, Princeton University Press, p. 3), as adapted to individual organizations: “[If organizations] are to prevent recurrences of past atrocities and to cleanse themselves of the corrosive enduring effects of massive injuries to individuals and whole groups, [organizations] must understand—at the deepest possible levels—what occurred and why. In order to come fully to terms with their brutal pasts, they must uncover, in precise detail, who did what to whom, and why, and under whose orders. They must seek, at least, thus to uncover the truth—insofar as this aim is humanly and situationally possible after the fact.” Consequently, LATBG is crack on: a Truth Commission is needed.

    First, consider any claim made that it is a waste of time to launch administrative investigations at this stage of Jim McDonnell’s term as Sheriff, citing the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights (POBR) and the inability to discipline peace officers for misconduct beyond one year of administration’s knowledge of the incident(s). I disagree. Such a move is not a waste of time. What’s more, it would be a properly ethical, forward thinking, organization-cleansing position to adopt. While administrative discipline for Tanakists is likely off the table, the larger question remains what actually happened during the Tanaka years and who had what degree of culpability in such serious administrative offenses as, for example, (1) giving test answers to certain favored candidates during Civil Service promotional examinations; (2) the vicious and utterly retaliatory prosecution of a former Commander’s son; and (3) the litany of crimes and offenses that have been alleged (again, too legion to cite here). With many of the main Tanaka culprits still occupying executive and management positions and exercising organizational influence, they must be thrilled to have the slate wiped clean (effectively receiving a pass for egregious conduct) and, by the conscious inaction of Sheriff McDonnell, have legitimacy in their current leadership positions rehabilitated. Upper level government and corporate criminals too often escape their crimes scot-free during a management changeover. All that they must endure is a stern “now you must toe the line” speech from new management. (In a later post I shall try to show why this failure to hold violators accountable for previous violations is itself a willful, unethical, immoral act, using the scandal of priest-abuse of children under bishops as one example.)

    Second, let’s bring the historical reference a little closer to an example some people might be familiar with. Consider the Narco scandal (1989) (e.g., http://articles.latimes.com/1989-10-04/news/mn-480_1_sheriff-suspends). No one doubts that this scandal was a black mark on the Department. Yet Sheriff Block took a different approach than Mr. McDonnell. He opened the doors wide in order to examine how good deputies became bad deputies, and the lessons learned are now (or was) part of POST’s middle-management school ethics teaching. Why not take the same above-board approach to the Tanakist reign of Stalin-like terror and open the books for examination? Would resistance to a Truth Commission be because the Tanakist scandal primarily involves executive and management-level personnel and not line staff?

    Here is what Sheriff Jim McDonnell could do. Certainly, a competent investigative team could establish what occurred in the Civil Service promotional cheating scandal.

    1. Sheriff McDonnell should hand select a Public Integrity Unit: an adequate number of IAB investigators (15-20) and non-Tanakist mid-level managers (10-15) who, collectively, will report directly to Sheriff McDonnell;
    2. The Public Integrity Unit would initially triage the rumors of executive and management misconduct, many which are well known and a high probability of having occurred;
    3. Interview potential witnesses to the misconduct (2-4 people minimum per incident);
    4. Transcribe those interviews;
    5. Assign management teams to the relevant cases (meeting twice a month with Sheriff McDonnell, meetings arguably more important than EPC meetings);
    6. Interview executive and management personnel accused of misconduct;
    7. Transcribe those interviews, develop recommendations of founded/unfounded based upon the preponderance of evidence standard;
    8. Report cases directly to Sheriff McDonnell;
    9. Sheriff McDonnell will make personnel decisions based upon these investigations;
    10. Report the founded cases to the Board of Supervisors, POST, the Huntsman group, and the press (with statutory administrative rights protected).

    There will be no opportunity for a Stockholm defense (“I was captured by Tanaka and took on his personality”), no Nuremberg defense (“I was merely following orders”), no Mark McGwire defense (“I’m not going to go into the past or talk about my past. I’m here to make a positive influence on this [steroid issue]” (US Congress, testimony, March 16, 2005)). Personnel who tell the truth would be immune from administrative discipline. Personnel who acknowledge having cheated or facilitated cheating on a Civil Service test, for example, would have that fact become part of their official employment record. This would establish (or reveal) the character issues of those personnel in current positions and give Sheriff McDonnell a management reason to not promote them any further or a reason not to place them in influential positions, where good character and judgment is essential and decision-making is high risk. At the same time, it would establish (or reveal) facts to defend the County against civil lawsuits from Tanakists who are suing under the premise they have been discriminated against without evidence and simply for their First Amendment political association/affiliation and contributions to Mr. Tanaka.

    Additionally, because the standard of proof is preponderance of evidence, should a Tanakist make false statements (lie) during the investigation, he or she opens the door to a new, dischargable offense. Either way, on this strategic chessboard, where the legitimacy of the organization remains unsettled and at risk, the Tanakist will be placed in a position of ‘check’ on an administrative board they once dominated so corruptly and punitively.

    There are two likely scenarios:

    Without evidence from these investigations the Tanakists are likely to win their lawsuits, truth will never be ascertained from fiction and legend, and character-flawed chameleons will continue to promote within the organization while the hope of true Department reform dissipates into well-justified cynicism.

    If evidence of Tanakism is established, maybe one day POST and the FBI National Academy will conduct training on what happened with the LASD Leadership Scandal and how the organization became a model for leadership reform.

    Which way will Sheriff Jim McDonnell take the organization? As so many have observed the honeymoon is over and time is no longer on his side. Further to follow.

  • Regarding McDonnell’s reform Option #2, total de-Tanakaification, although there is a moderate cost associated with it, interestingly the department is currently paying that cost as we speak, and gambling that it won’t mushroom into something far worse. There is a steady supply of clients for lawyers representing employees suing the department for a variety of transgressions, and that number is expected to grow significantly. It turns out that during the Baca/Tanaka years, and still true to this day, department executives willfully screw over their subordinates and hide behind the seemingly endless supply of funds to pay for defense attorneys.

    Rather than admit wrongdoing where it existed and reform where needed, the LASD hires high-priced attorneys to fight tooth and nail at every turn in every forum, be it ERCOM, Civil Service, Superior Court, or Federal Court. The list of successful litigants is growing, and several law firms can now boast of a string of victories against the LASD and the county whereas before it was a rare event. In essence, the cost of not cleaning house in the long run will dwarf the cost of cleaning house in the short run, but the sheriff seems more interested in bunting than playing long ball.

    We saw a glimpse of a truth and reconciliation commission in operation during the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence. Information that never saw the light of day was exposed, albeit in a very limited fashion. The pay to play scandal and corrupt promotional practices did get some airing, but insufficient to address the magnitude of the problem. There was enough information developed, however, to give McDonnell the right to clean house as a legitimate business necessity, a useful tool in defending frivolous lawsuits from the benefactors of the Baca/Tanaka regime.

    Consistent with the previous two administrations, the current one is still using the same political patronage model for leadership appointments in all key positions throughout the department. Personal loyalty continues to trump merit, and the outcome is the worst possible for the department: the unqualified in leadership roles, and pathways for success within the organization continue to be defined by who knows who instead of who knows what and how. There is little motivation within the ranks for individuals to aspire to any goal within the organization if they are out of reach, so there is no point in investing in education and experience that furthers the goals of the organization and increases the value of the employee. The twin pillars of success throughout the nation, experience and education, have little value to our illustrious crop of managers and executives.

    The LASD is in dire need of standards for each leadership position within the organization, currently there are none. Every promotion and transfer should follow a deliberate protocol that seeks to provide every employee the opportunity to increase their experience, demonstrate their abilities, and contribute to the overall mission of the department. We routinely assign managers and executives to positions they would be unqualified to even apply for if the position were open for competition. We have managers and executives with no line experience, a high school education only, who can’t speak in public or write a coherent sentence if their life depended on it, and that’s the best McDonnell can do?

    Koestler, funny how you mentioned Alinsky’s rule regarding rules. The department is loath to create standards for anything, and the argument was always about “diversity,” yet the lack of standards only serves to protect the career mobility of a very undiverse group of sheltered individuals.

  • @LATBG –

    “The department is loath to create standards for anything, and the argument was always about ‘diversity,’ yet the lack of standards only serves to protect the career mobility of a very undiverse group of sheltered individuals.”

    You are correct. For all the noise made about inclusiveness, “tokenism” still rules the roost. Worse than perfunctory, the process still precipitates the rise of sycophants and gatekeepers of “all” stripes. In that respect, they are very undiverse and ineffective. They risk nothing, add nothing, and do nothing but strut and shine the brass on their collars and the seat of their green wool pants.

  • We can huff and puff all we want with antidotes for reform to blow all of LASD’S dysfunction down. Unfortunately nothing will change anytime soon. The “brutal truth” speaks.

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