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The DOJ and the consent decree - will it change bad policing?




Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, discusses the department's findings on the investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department as Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, left, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, right, listen on August 10, 2016, at City Hall in Baltimore. Associated Press/Brian Witte
Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, discusses the department's findings on the investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department as Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, left, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, right, listen on August 10, 2016, at City Hall in Baltimore. Associated Press/Brian Witte
Associated Press/Brian Witte

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This week the Department of Justice released a scathing report on the Baltimore police department. The investigation came in the wake of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, and it found that local law enforcement routinely violated the civil rights of Baltimore residents. 

Now officials from the city and the Justice Department are expected to work on a negotiation that will be presented to a judge. The settlement could be what’s known as a consent decree, an agreement that spells out steps that the department would have to meet.

We talked to Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He's the author of more than 14 books on policing. His most recent one is called "The New World of Police Accountability."

How do consent decrees work?

They were authorized by Congress in the 1994 Violent Crime Act, and the very first one involved Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1997 ... It begins by an investigation of the Special Litigations section ... and then the ones where there are serious problems, they then conduct a full investigation, and that results in a findings letter, which is what the DOJ released yesterday in terms of Baltimore. The findings letter then sets in motion negotiations between the DOJ and the city and police department, the result is what's known as a consent decree: a binding agreement that mandates a usually sweeping set of reforms.

What kinds of reforms are in a normal consent decree?

There will be a need to change the department's formal policy on use of force, and then procedures for officers reporting individual uses of force — such as, the officer has to fill out a report by the end of the shift, particularly important — sergeants will be expected and required to critically review those reports, to look for missing information or things that don't add up.

What's most notable about Los Angeles, and the consent decree entered with the LAPD and the DOJ following the Rampart scandal?

Los Angeles is a really interesting case because its been the most thoroughly  evaluated ... There was a team from Harvard ... and they found that the department was better, that uses of force went down and crime went down also ... Public complaints went down, attitudes [toward] the police department went up ... So in most cases, a consent decree has been effective in  transforming a police department. 

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