How the DOJ Reforms a Police Department Like Ferguson

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Ferguson, Mo., police officers regularly discriminate against black residents, subjecting them to illegal stops, excessive force and arrests for petty offenses like “manner of walking in roadway,” according to a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation released on Wednesday.

The DOJ opened a probe into the department in September 2014, one month after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year old. No criminal charges were brought against the officer, who has resigned from the department. A civil-rights investigation into Wilson yielded no charges, the DOJ said Wednesday.

The broader DOJ investigation examined whether the Ferguson police department fostered a culture of bias against African-Americans that could have contributed to the circumstances surrounding Brown’s death.

“Of course, violence is never justified,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference following the report’s release. “But seen in this context – amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices – it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg.”

Policing the Police

The investigation of the Ferguson police department is one outcome of a federal law, passed in the wake of a notorious incident of police violence: the 1991 case of Rodney King, a black man who was beaten by Los Angeles police after being stopped for speeding. Three years later, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included a provision that gave the Justice Department unprecedented power to investigate law enforcement agencies for systemic problems — such as use of excessive force, or racial profiling — and force them to implement reforms.

The law is the only tool that exists to compel widespread change within a police department. The Justice Department can threaten to sue a department for constitutional violations, forcing it to enter into a negotiated settlement, such as a consent decree.

“It’s often hard to reform police departments without external intervention,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Irvine law school, and an expert on constitutional policing. “Institutions are resistant to change. None of us like to have somebody outside telling us what to do. And police departments are especially that way. They have their own internal culture.”

In the past 20 years, the Justice Department has launched at least 65 so-called “pattern or practice” investigations of law enforcement agencies, 32 of which have led to agreements to reform, according to an analysis of DOJ data by Stephen Rushin, a professor at the University of Illinois Law School who studies police misconduct.

That’s a small number compared to the nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Still, the reforms have had an impact: today, nearly one in five Americans is served by a law enforcement agency that has been subject to a DOJ investigation under this law, according to Rushin’s analysis.

Most investigations zero in on whether, when and how officers are allowed to use force, including deadly force. Also atop the list: a focus on discriminatory policing of minorities — specifically, blacks and Latinos. The DOJ has also examined allegations of gender discrimination, the treatment of people in the LGBT community, and how officers handle people who are mentally ill.

A New Push for Civil-Rights Investigations

The Obama administration has used its power aggressively to take on widespread problems of police brutality, discrimination and other abuse in local jurisdictions, negotiating more settlement agreements than either the Clinton or George W. Bush administrations.

“In case you haven’t heard, the Civil Rights Division is once again open for business,” said Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general tapped to lead the division, in a 2010 speech. Combating police misconduct, he said, had become an important priority — and pattern or practice investigations were a “critical tool” for bringing change.

Under Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department has opened 20 investigations and negotiated agreements to implement reforms in 15 departments, including major cities like New Orleans, La., Portland, Ore., and Newark, N.J. It currently has nine open investigations.

Even the Justice Department admits flaws in the process. It’s expensive and can take years to fulfill an agreement. In Los Angeles, which is widely considered the most successful test case, it took more than a decade for the police to complete the required reforms, at a cost of $15 million.

Next Steps for the Nation

In December, President Barack Obama convened a task force on 21st century policing. Its preliminary report, released this week, recommended compiling data on officer-involved shootings and establishing independent investigations of such incidents. It also recommended reducing police use of military equipment during protests, though it stopped short of recommending the widespread use of body cameras for officers, citing privacy concerns.

The task force also recommended that departments work to build trust in communities of color. A survey it conducted found that 72 percent of whites said they were confident officers would treat people of other races the same way; only 46 percent of Hispanics and 36 percent of blacks agreed.

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