Unconstitutional policing conducted by US police departments

By Charles David Henry

The country is engaged in a critically important conversation about community-police relations, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.

Some of the more than 18,000 police departments across the United States are engaging in unconstitutional policing, according to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Pattern and Practice Police Reform Work report published in January. Their actions, the report said, are severely undermining both community trust and public safety.

The division has entered into 40 total reform agreements in pattern-or-practice policing cases.

Twenty of those agreements have been court-enforced consent decrees, and 20 have been settlement agreements, typically known as memoranda of agreement, between the United States and the local jurisdiction.

Of the 18 reform agreements resulting from investigations opened since 2008, all have been consent decrees, but for those in four jurisdictions (Missoula, Mont.; Suffolk County, NY.; Miami, Fla.; and Alamance, NC).

The United States Department of Justice is using police reform, police-community trust relations, and public safety as tools to accomplish these policies:

a. Investigate cases that begin with the launch of a formal investigation into a law enforcement agency to determine whether the agency is engaged in a pattern or practice of violating federal law. An investigation most often consists of a comprehensive analysis of the policies and practices of policing in a particular community, although an investigation may also focus on a specific area of policing practice.

b. If the division finds a pattern or practice of police misconduct, it issues public findings in the form of a letter or report made available to the local jurisdiction and the public. The division conducts a thorough and independent investigation into allegations of police misconduct and substantiates any conclusions it draws with evidence set forth in its public findings.

c. The division negotiates reform agreements resolving those findings, usually in the form of a “consent decree” overseen by a federal court and an independent monitoring team. The lead independent monitor is appointed by the court and usually agreed upon by both the division and the investigated party but reports directly to the court. If an agreement cannot be negotiated, the division will bring a lawsuit to compel needed reforms.

d. When the court finds that the law enforcement agency has accomplished and sustained the requirements of the reform agreement, the case is terminated. In recent years, the division’s reform agreements have included data-driven outcome measures designed to provide clear and objective standards for measuring success and determining whether the law enforcement agency has met the objectives of the agreement.

e. At all stages of a pattern-or-practice case, from investigation through resolution, the division emphasizes engagement with a wide variety of stakeholders, including community members and people who have been victims of police misconduct or live in the neighborhoods most impacted by police misconduct, police leadership, rank and file officers, police labor organizations, and local political leaders. Each of these groups brings a different and important perspective and plays a critical role in accomplishing and sustaining police reform.

f. In keeping with the focus on systemic problems, the division’s reform agreements emphasize institutional reforms such as improving systems for supervising officers and holding them accountable for misconduct. It also emphasizes ensuring that officers have the policy guidance, training, equipment and other resources necessary for constitutional and effective policing; creating and using data about police activity to identify and correct patterns of police misconduct; and institutionalizing law enforcement agencies’ engagement with and accountability to the community.

At the time of this publication, the division had 18 open reform agreements, 14 of which are court-enforced consent decrees.


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