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Are police consent decrees a plus? Depends on who you ask

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Minneapolis Police Department will face federal program scrutiny after a state investigation spurred into the killing of George Floyd concluded that city officers are arresting and arresting Blacks more than whites, use force more often on people of color and maintain a culture in which racist language is tolerated.

The court-imposed plan, known as the consent decree, has been credited with bringing significant reform in some places, but scorned by critics elsewhere as ineffective and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The Crimes Bill 1994 gave the Department of Justice the ability to investigate police departments for unconstitutional policing patterns or practices and to require departments to meet specific goals before federal oversight can be removed. Typically, a federal judge oversees the consent decree and appoints a monitor to guide it.

Some deals set a five-year timeline, 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 there. are submitted or potentially confronted.

Nearly two dozen consent decrees are in the works, even as the Justice Department works to make the process more efficient and less costly. Attorney General Merrick Garland in September introduced budget caps and hearings after five years to determine whether the deals should end.

Although costly 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 served as comptroller . The city or agency could be fined until they are back in good standing, del Carmen said.

University of Nebraska-Omaha professor emeritus Sam Walker, another police accountability expert, said consent decrees have been largely successful in reducing unnecessary use of force and traffic stops, and increase de-escalation practices. He cited New Orleans as an example.

“In 2012, it was one of the worst departments in the country, but they’ve made tremendous progress,” Walker said.

The Justice Department investigation of New Orleans found a high number of officer-involved shootings, botched investigations and cover-ups. 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 a thorough investigation of these cases,” Murphy said. He credited the consent decree with providing “an opportunity to transform in ways that would be difficult, if not 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 shootings involving officers. But today, many elected officials and Albuquerque residents are criticizing what they see as a lack of progress, as well as the cost.

Republican U.S. Representative Yvette Herrell in February urged Garland to end the consent decree, noting that the city has spent nearly $25 million on it, including $10 million in oversight payments, and it hasn’t led to fewer crimes: 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 has failed to make our state’s largest city safer or improve officer retention,” Herrell wrote.

The Monitor’s latest report, released on May 11, offered hope. He cited a “substantial increase in training effectiveness” from the second half of 2021 and credited a new external investigation unit for improving reviews of use of force incidents.

In some cases, the success of reform depends on who you ask.

Ferguson, Missouri, came under federal scrutiny after a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black boy, in August 2014.

Neither a local grand jury nor the Justice Department found any wrongdoing on the part of 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 almost all-white police department is racially divided. Roadside checks are less frequent, systems have been put in place to hear complaints from residents, and the City Court no longer uses fines and fees as a source of revenue.

James Knowles III served as mayor of Ferguson from 2011 until 2020, when he was unable to 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 before the agreement.

Ferguson executives estimate the city will spend between $6 million and $10 million on the consent decree once the process is complete — a high price in a small town.

And in some ways, Knowles said, Ferguson is worse off because federal oversight only makes it harder to fill the multitude of vacancies.

” What is the result ? ” He asked. “We have fewer agents. I will be bold enough to say that 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 including officer training and community policing. Now, she says, the focus is on implementation.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry praised Ferguson’s efforts, especially given the obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” Perry said.


Doug Glass of The Associated Press in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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