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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.