With Program in Peril, DOJ Evaluates Police Reform

January 4, 2017
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by Sarah Childress Senior Reporter

A St. Louis County police officer points his weapon in the direction of protesters in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

On Wednesday, the Justice Department released for the first time a comprehensive report on its efforts to reform troubled police departments, along with a tally of the agreements it has reached with law enforcement agencies to reform.

Since 1994, the DOJ has had the power to compel agencies with patterns of civil-rights abuses to reform through court-enforceable agreements, known as consent decrees. It’s the only tool that exists to force police departments to implement structural change. But a 2015 FRONTLINE investigation with the Washington Post found that over the past three administrations, the department kept scant records on its efforts, and had never fully evaluated how effective the program has been.

FRONTLINE’s investigation with the Post examined reform agreements and data from 16 departments that had either undergone reforms or were currently bound by an agreement. It found that these agreements improve officer training and standards, but can be costly and fall apart if police and city leadership don’t remain invested in maintaining change. FRONTLINE also analyzed all 69 DOJ investigations, and went inside the Newark, N.J. police department in Policing the Police, to understand how officers there were confronting the reform process.

The DOJ report marks the first such attempt by the department to fully catalogue its investigations and analyze the results. While it noted that “much remains to be studied” about the process, it said that overall, reform agreements had been effective. It said that concerns raised by critics — that reform led officers to cut back on police activity, and therefore allow more crime — were unfounded.

Vanita Gupta, the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said she was releasing the report after requests from “countless” individuals over the years seeking more information about its efforts to investigate and reform police departments.

The report emphasized the more robust metrics embedded in recent consent decrees signed during the Obama administration. The agreements allow the government to collect data on citizen complaints and use of force, and survey police and community members, in order to gauge progress. The DOJ said these agreements target issues that departments across the country are wrestling with — such as how police handle sexual assault victims and use force against those in mental health crisis — that could help set a national standard for reform.

FRONTLINE and the Post examined several of these agreements, and found the initial data showed some mixed results. In Albuquerque, N.M., the number of times police reported using force dropped dramatically after the federal investigation, according to police department data. In Seattle, police cut back on proactive engagement with civilians in the early years of the agreement, although those numbers have improved under the new police chief, Kathleen O’Toole. The Seattle agreement has also been credited with boosting officer morale.

In the past, the administration’s approach to reform has set the tone for how its attorneys pursue these cases. President Obama called publicly for police reform nationwide, and during his tenure, the DOJ brokered 19 agreements with police departments, about half of which were court-enforceable consent decrees. That was a shift from his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who was more likely to negotiate reforms with police departments than impose binding agreements. Under Bush, the Justice Department opened roughly the same amount of investigations into police departments as under Obama, but negotiated 12 agreements, only four of which were binding in court.

There are currently seven open cases — including an investigation of police in Chicago and in Baltimore, where federal officials are trying to negotiate a consent decree.

The DOJ report comes as the Civil Rights Division’s police reform effort, which gained new momentum under the Obama administration, is considered in jeopardy amid concerns about how the Trump administration will pursue these cases.

While President-Elect Donald Trump hasn’t said explicitly what he might do in those cities, he has been vocal in his support for police and won the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest labor organization for law enforcement. Trump’s attorney general nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), has been explicit in the past about his disdain for consent decrees, referring to them in a 2008 report as “dangerous … exercises of raw power.”

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