What Happens When Police Are Forced to Reform?

New York City Police Academy cadets attend their graduation ceremony on July 2, 2013 in Brooklyn.

New York City Police Academy cadets attend their graduation ceremony on July 2, 2013 in Brooklyn. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

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In Detroit, the Justice Department forced reforms on police after officers fatally shot 47 people in five years, including six who were unarmed. The overhaul took 11 years and eight police chiefs.

In Los Angeles, Justice intervened after police officers in an anti-gang unit were accused of beating and framing people. The reforms costs taxpayers an estimated $300 million.

In New Orleans, Justice stepped in to overhaul the police department after officers over 17 months shot 27 people, all of whom were black. The changes have fueled departures from the ranks and deterred some officers from proactive policing.

These are some of the unintended costs of federal intervention at agencies where the Justice Department found police had committed civil rights violations, according to a review by The Washington Post and FRONTLINE.

Over the past two decades, Justice has undertaken its deepest interventions at 16 departments that had patterns of excessive or deadly force, implementing reforms under the watch of independent monitors. More than its predecessors, the Obama administration has aggressively pursued police departments over the abuses, recently launching probes after individuals died as a result of encounters with police in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.

The question is whether such interventions work. The Justice Department has not studied the long-term outcomes at the law enforcement agencies it has targeted.

To examine the impact, reporters surveyed the departments, visiting four cities. They interviewed officials, federal monitors and civil rights advocates. They also reviewed use-of-force data, monitoring reports and local budgets.

The reforms have led to modernized policies, new equipment and better training, police chiefs, city leaders, activists and Justice officials agree.

But measured by incidents of use of force, one of Justice’s primary metrics, the outcomes are mixed. In five of the 10 police departments for which sufficient data was provided, use of force by officers increased during and after the agreements. In five others, it stayed the same or declined.

None of the departments completed reforms by the targeted dates, the review found. In most, the interventions have dragged years beyond original projections, driving up costs. In 13 of the police departments for which budget data was available, costs are expected to surpass $600 million, expenses largely passed on to local taxpayers.

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.


Congress empowered the federal government to police local law enforcement in 1994 in the aftermath of the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers after a high-speed car chase. Under the law, the Justice Department can investigate and force systemic changes on local police and sue if they do not comply.

Many of the federal investigations have started with complaints from civil rights groups or after a high-profile news event, such as the 2014 shooting in Ferguson of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. In Washington, Justice’s civil rights division receives about 200 complaints per week, many of them concerning some portion of the nation’s more than 15,000 police departments. Its attorneys focus on the ones in which they see abuse patterns, including racial profiling, unlawful arrests and illegal searches. Most investigations include allegations of excessive force.

“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.”

Jonathan Smith, who headed the division’s special litigation section for five years until April, said some departments have been targeted because their problems illustrate larger nationwide issues.

“A good example is that we took on a bunch of cases where one of the critical elements was how police use force against persons who are in mental health crisis,” Smith said, citing Albuquerque’s 2014 reform agreement.

In the past two decades, the Justice Department has launched 67 civil rights investigations of police departments. Nine remain unresolved.

Of the completed investigations, 24 were closed without reform agreements, meaning investigators did not have sufficient evidence to prove civil rights abuses or the agencies informally resolved the problems, officials said.

In eight investigations, Justice documented patterns of civil rights abuses and won promises from the departments to reform. Those cases were settled out of court with no independent or federal oversight.

Twenty-six investigations – a little more than half of them since President Obama took office – have led to the most rigorous outcome: binding agreements tracked by monitors. More than half were consent decrees, meaning they were approved and managed in federal court.

Of the 26, Justice found patterns of excessive force in 16 of its investigations. The other 10 were investigations that found abuses including uninvestigated sexual assaults and racial profiling. Oversight continues until the monitor concludes that local police have completed or complied with most reforms.

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.

Justice Department investigations have led to the most rigorous outcome: binding agreements tracked by monitors. Of the 26, Justice found patterns of excessive force in 16 of its investigations.

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.

Most of the agencies targeted have agreed to the federal demands, although this year the Justice Department lost its first case, against the 117-officer sheriff’s office in Alamance County, N.C. Justice sued Sheriff Terry S. Johnson in 2012 for his agency’s alleged targeting of Latinos during traffic stops.

U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder dismissed the case in August after finding that Justice did not present “reliable and persuasive proof” of a pattern or practice of civil rights abuses. The department, which declined to comment on the case, has appealed his ruling. Johnson also declined to comment for this article.

“Unfortunately, most law enforcement agencies are afraid to challenge the civil rights division, even when its claims are completely bogus,” said Alamance County Attorney Clyde B. Albright.


In suburban Maryland, the Justice Department launched back-to-back civil rights investigations of the Prince George’s County police department after dogs in its K-9 unit inflicted 800 bites over seven years and police officers fatally shot 47 people over a decade.

The investigations in 1999 and 2000 led to separate reform agreements that were completed by 2009. The reforms that the Justice Department required included provisions that supervisors approve the use of police dogs and that a board be established to review shootings.

“It was a painful time. There’s no question about it going through that,” said Prince George’s Police Chief Mark Magaw, a department veteran who took over the top job in 2010. “But both of those agreements have made us better, hands down.”

One of the biggest changes, Magaw said, is in the department’s relationship with the community. He said he meets monthly with NAACP officials, Muslim business owners and the police union.

Bob Ross, president of Prince George’s County NAACP branch, said the department is more in touch with county residents. The number of complaints to the local NAACP about excessive police force has gone from 10 to 15 calls a month to one or two, he said. Ross said that the department is receptive when issues arise but that improvements are still needed.

Ross said he recently received a complaint from two black men who were stopped in their car by police because one was reclined in the passenger seat. “I will be sitting with the chief, and we’ll talk about that,” he said.

Since the reforms, the average annual number of bites by police dogs is below pre-intervention levels.

In 2010, the department reported 303 use-of-force incidents. That number has increased through 2014, when police reported 555. Over the same period, complaints about officers’ use of force have declined from 123 to 80.

“The goal isn’t that we have a perfect police department when we leave … The goal is that they actually know what to do when there’s a problem.” — Vanita Gupta, Department of Justice

Magaw attributed the increase in reported incidents to the department broadening its definition of use of force and to the county’s growing population. “The way I read these numbers is we’re doing a better job, we’re holding our officers more accountable and we’re being more transparent,” he said.

In the District, police agreed in 2001 to a long list of reforms sought by the Justice Department. The federal intervention was prompted by a Post investigation that found D.C. officers had fatally shot more people per capita in the 1990s than officers at any other large city police department nationwide.

“The city was bankrupt. And the police department was in shambles,” said Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who assumed leadership of the department in 2007 during the seventh year of the reforms.

Lanier said the reforms have led to better training, improved policies and the use of less-lethal options in confrontations, including pepper spray and rubber bullets. Since the agreement ended in 2012, police have reported a steady decrease in the use of force and civilian complaints, the review found. The number of fatal shootings by police has decreased slightly.

“When the only thing you have to respond to an attack is your gun, that’s what officers were using,” Lanier said.

Because of the improving situation, Lanier said that she downsized the use-of force investigation team created by the reforms, consolidating it with internal affairs. “At the time when we implemented it, we needed the 30 or 40 people to do it,” she said.

Michael G. Tobin, executive director of the D.C. Office of Police Complaints, said the independent civilian oversight group has seen a “slight” uptick in citizen complaints in the past year and a 40 percent increase in questions about police conduct, which he thinks is the result of media coverage. But he said he believes the department has improved.

In Albuquerque, the Justice Department opened an investigation in 2012 after police fatally shot 20 people in three years. Some of those killed suffered from mental illness. The city’s 2014 agreement with Justice requires that officers be trained to de-escalate conflicts and generally prohibits some tactics, such as restraining a person by the neck. Since the federal investigation began, the number of times officers used force dropped by 57 percent, from 287 to 122, records show.

Chief Gorden Eden Jr. attributed the drop to the fact that most officers are now trained in crisis intervention.

“Our officers are taking more time at the calls; they’re taking more time to assess the situation,” said Eden, who was named chief in 2014.


The costs of implementing the reform agreements are primarily shouldered by local taxpayers. In many cities, those costs have grown as projected deadlines came and went. Resistance from police officials, city leadership or rank-and-file officers have contributed to delays.

In Los Angeles, the reform agreement was set to take five years. Police provided budget records showing about $115 million in spending. But Sharon Tso, the city’s chief legislative analyst, estimated actual costs were about $300 million. The agreement took nearly 12 years, making it the longest and costliest reform by the Justice Department to date.

The Justice Department insisted on reforms in 2000 after the scandal in the department’s Rampart division over its anti-gang unit. Officers were accused of shooting and beating suspects and framing people.

As part of its reforms, the police department spent an estimated $40 million on computer systems to track traffic and pedestrian stops and officer performance, Tso said. Police also created an 80-member division to investigate serious uses of force, said Arif Alikhan, who was hired by the police department to help continue the reforms.

“It’s a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of effort. But it’s also about important things, things the department is very proud of,” Alikhan said.

In Detroit, the agreement was also projected to take five years, but it dragged on for 11 years, making it the second-longest such undertaking by the Justice Department.

Justice began investigating the Detroit police in 2001 after a string of fatal shootings by officers. In 2003, the city agreed to federal reforms, and a federal judge concluded in 2014 that the city had reached compliance.

City officials said they don’t know how much has been spent implementing the reforms, which originally were projected to cost $50 million, or about $10 million annually, according to news reports. Detroit, which has long struggled financially, emerged last year from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Chester L. Logan, who was Detroit’s police chief for two years during the reforms, said implementation dragged on because of pushback from the rank and file.

“Frankly, it took us probably four or five years for us to say, ‘Our backs are against the wall, we’ve got to get this done,’” said Logan, who retired in July after nearly 40 years with the department.

In many cases, the salaries and expenses of the federal monitors and their staffs, who fly in and out of the cities, are among the largest costs. Critics have complained that the monitors have a financial incentive to prolong the oversight.

In Puerto Rico, for example, its 2013 reform agreement costs about $1.5 million annually to monitor.

Arnaldo Claudio, a former counterterrorism expert with the Defense Department, routinely flies between his homes in Virginia and Puerto Rico to keep tabs on the progress. His monthly expenses include consultants, office rent, an office administrator, a legal adviser and a personal driver. “It is by far the cheapest consent decree budget in the entire nation, regardless of how extensive and complex it is compared to others,” Claudio said.

Implementing the changes that the Justice Department wants is expected to take 10 years and cost $200 million. Puerto Rico, however, is $72 billion in debt.

Federal officials had stepped in after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the commonwealth’s 15,000-member police agency. The Justice Department’s investigation found that “officers have unnecessarily injured hundreds of people and killed numerous others.” In its findings, Justice also said that the police agency suffered from “crime and corruption” and that 1,709 officers had been arrested over six years.

“We’re committed to making the reform work,” said Police Superintendent José Caldero. “There’s no going back.”


One of Justice’s earliest civil rights investigations of police was New Orleans in 1996. The probe ended in 2004 without an agreement after the city pledged to reform on its own. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, four officers faced criminal charges for shooting at people trying to cross the Danziger Bridge. Four years later, a string of police shootings of black people prompted investigators to return in 2010.

“The NOPD has long been a troubled agency,” the Justice Department concluded in 2011. “. . . In the absence of mechanisms to protect and promote civil rights, officers too frequently use excessive force and conduct illegal stops, searches and arrests with impunity.”

The city appealed a judge’s approval of the reform settlement but lost. The federal agreement, finalized in 2013, includes a requirement of in-car cameras. Separately, the city in 2014 began requiring police to use body cameras, ordering officers to activate them when they step out of their vehicles. Those who don’t have their pay docked. The judge overseeing the federal intervention incorporated the body cameras into the broader reforms, requiring monthly compliance reports.

The reforms – specifically the requirement to use body cameras – have made officers reluctant to do elective, proactive policing, said Capt. Mike Glasser, who heads the Police Association of New Orleans. “Yes, he looks suspicious. Yes, he might be up to no good. But you know what? I don’t have to do that,” Glasser said. “Because you don’t get in trouble for what you don’t do.”

New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, a department veteran who took over last year, agreed that the body cameras have made officers wary. “Officers are somewhat reserved about their levels of aggression toward fighting violent crime because of the oversight.”

In the wake of the reforms, the size of the police force has dwindled through attrition and a hiring freeze, from 1,500 to 1,150. Recruits are dropping out of the city police academy to work for the state police, where they don’t have to worry about body cameras and can earn more money, Glasser said.

“There’s a stigma that we carry being under a consent decree,” Harrison said.

The department dropped its college requirement for applicants over the monitor’s objections. Police also have launched an aggressive recruiting campaign that includes ads on Domino’s Pizza boxes.

In Seattle, Justice began an investigation in 2011 after 35 community groups complained about a pattern of excessive force by police. The next year, the police department agreed to reforms. Amid the investigation, officers became less proactive, according to interviews and data gathered by the department.

The number of times officers took the initiative to engage with someone – as opposed to being dispatched to a call – dropped nearly 20 percent from 2010 to 2012. These engagements climbed by nearly 11 percent in 2013 before plummeting again in 2014 to the lowest point in five years.

“Cops are human beings,” said Ron Smith, president of Seattle’s union for rank-and-file officers. “They said, ‘Well, when we did those things, that’s what got us in trouble. So we won’t do those things anymore.’“

Smith said that Chief Kathleen O’Toole, who was hired last year, has helped restore morale by taking steps that included streamlining reviews for officers involved in shootings. This year’s data shows officers taking the initiative more often. “I think we’ve recovered from the initial shock,” Smith said.


Once the reform agreements end and the monitors depart, local police aren’t required to adhere to the changes. “Communities are on their own,” said Samuel Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a policing expert.

In 1997, Pittsburgh was the first city to agree to Justice Department reforms, after the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit based on complaints from 66 people that ranged from physical abuse to police rudeness. By 2002, the department had made a number of changes, including updated use-of-force policies and improved training. The consent decree was left in place for three more years to continue reforming the complaint-investigation process.

In 2005, Pittsburgh police used force 1,900 times. In 2013, that number had increased by nearly 44 percent, to 2,727. Complaints about excessive force have declined: from 126 in 2006 to 48 in 2014. That decline, experts said, could indicate that residents are losing faith that their complaints will be addressed.

Turnover in the chief’s office and major violent incidents have made for uneven progress, civil rights groups said. “What we’ve seen is a good amount of backsliding,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU who helped prepare the suit alleging civil rights abuses that brought in the Justice Department.

“When the only thing you have to respond to an attack is your gun, that’s what officers were using.” –Cathy Lanier, Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police

In 2010, Jordan Miles, an 18-year-old black man, was seriously injured in a struggle after officers tried to arrest him as he was walking to his grandmother’s house. A jury cleared the officers of using excessive force but determined that police had unlawfully arrested Miles and awarded him $119,000 in damages.

In 2012, an officer shot Leon Ford, an unarmed black man, during a traffic stop, paralyzing him from the waist down. The officer said he thought Ford was reaching for a weapon. The officer was placed on desk duty, and Ford has sued the city.

Pittsburgh’s latest police chief, Cameron McLay, has been on the job for a year and said he is working with community groups to increase public trust and strengthen accountability for officers. The backward slide came because of “a breakdown in the systems of accountability,” McLay said in an interview.

McLay has established a professional standards office inside the department to investigate whether officers follow policy during incidents. He has also ordered audits to ensure that officers turn on body microphones and dashboard cameras during calls. And, he said, he is reinvesting in data analysis and training.

“You can gain compliance with policies and get people to stop engaging in dysfunctional behavior,” McLay said, “but unless you change the way people feel about their job and start holding themselves responsible . . . the accountability will last only as long as I do.”

Sarah Childress is the senior digital reporter for FRONTLINE’s Enterprise Journalism Group.Funding for the Enterprise Journalism Group is provided by the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Douglas Drane Family Fund.

Kimbriell Kelly is a staff writer on the Investigations Unit at The Washington Post. Steven Rich is a database editor on the Investigations Unit at The Washington Post.

About this story: Over the past two decades, Justice has undertaken its deepest interventions at 16 departments that had patterns of excessive or deadly force, implementing reforms under the watch of independent monitors. To examine the impact, Washington Post and FRONTLINE reporters surveyed the departments, visiting four of the cities. They interviewed officials, federal monitors and civil rights advocates. They also reviewed use-of-force data, monitoring reports and local budgets.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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