Data show consent decrees worth their costs

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently ordered the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review its police reform activities that began under former President Barack Obama. Though his memo fell short of calling for a reversal of the federal government’s role in local law enforcement affairs, it sent a signal that he — and, by extension, the Trump administration — is skeptical about the DOJ’s need to monitor and force reform within America’s police departments.

Mr. Sessions said during his confirmation hearing that federal intervention can “undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing [its] work.” While his statement may be true, there is no room for idle speculation when it is DOJ’s mission “to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”

Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 gave the DOJ authority to investigate and force reforms within any police department deemed to have engaged in a “pattern or practice of conduct” that “deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” More than a dozen police departments, including Baltimore’s, are now operating under “consent decrees,” or legal agreements between themselves and the DOJ to implement specified reforms. The agreements are the penultimate step, short of a protracted trial, that police departments can take to correct problems such as rampant racial discrimination, stop-and-frisk abuses and inadequate accountability mechanisms.

To be sure, consent decrees are tedious, expensive, and contentious. The 129-page New Orleans consent decree calls for changes to all aspects of the police department’s operations, ranging from search and seizure policy to recruitment and in-service training. By some accounts, it has cost the Big Easy over $10 million. Baltimore may also pay as much as $10 million to abide by the terms of its 227-page agreement, which a judge approved back in April.

And there are sharp political divisions in the discourse over consent decrees. Some feel police reform is best left to states and localities. Milwaukee County, Wisc., Sheriff David Clarke wrote in an op-ed for The Hill that “the federal government should keep its nose out of local law enforcement.” Others feel remedies for police abuses are squarely in the DOJ’s wheelhouse: “The tragic deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in New York City, have raised urgent, national questions,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference announcing the Cleveland consent decree.

The drama over consent decrees continues to intensify, and it is worth having conversations about their costs, implications for officer morale and potential to usher in real change. But there is a critical question no one seems to be asking: Do they work?

More specifically, do consent decrees pay dividends that offset the otherwise high costs and administrative headaches they impose? Our research suggests the answer may be “yes.” My co-researchers and I assembled a dataset of civil rights lawsuits filed against 23 consent decree jurisdictions, then explored whether litigation trends were influenced by the presence or absence of the decrees. We controlled for other likely causes of lawsuits against police and subjected our model to a variety of robustness checks. Ultimately, we found that the risk of litigation in consent decree jurisdictions was reduced between 22 and 36 percent depending on the model used.

We cannot talk about the costs of consent decrees without also talking about the costs lawsuits also impose. New Orleans paid out $13 million in settlements to resolve a number of post-Katrina lawsuits over deadly police shootings. Baltimore paid almost $6 million to alleged victims of police abuses in a four year period, and paid $6.4 million to settle civil claims from the family of Freddie Gray, whose death led to the city’s consent decree with the DOJ. The Tamir Rice settlement in Cleveland cost that city $6 million. The list goes on. If we could tally up the sum total of these and similar payouts, it may well be that consent decrees’ benefits outweigh their costs. Mr. Sessions’ Justice Department should therefore take a more measured stance on consent decrees, one informed by data and evidence, not assumptions and ideology.

John Worrall (Worrall@utdallas.edu)is a professor of criminology at The University of Texas at Dallas. His research on consent decrees was published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

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