DoJ to investigate Minneapolis police – but can federal oversight change policing culture?

Seven years ago, the city of Portland, Oregon was forced to admit that its police officers were shooting too many unarmed people, and it agreed to a program of reform under the oversight of a federal judge.

Verlede maand, the US justice department declared Portland police were failing to comply with the agreement after its officers used excessive force against demonstrators – including firing impact munitions against people suspected of having “furtive” conversations – following the death of George Floyd.

After years of oversight, justice department attorneys said that officers still did not follow their department’s own policies regarding the use of force, or respect the constitutional rights of the protesters.

Portland is among dozens of cities under a “consent decree” as a result of investigations by the justice department’s civil rights division, which is now targeting Minneapolis following the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering Floyd nearly a year ago.

The US attorney general, Merrick Garland, announced the move in a revival of federal oversight of policing after the Trump administration undermined existing consent agreements and blocked new ones. But looking at past experiences of federal intervention in city policing reveals that fundamental change is hard and far from guaranteed: something that could easily happen in Minneapolis.

The justice departments civil rights division will now open a “pattern or practice” investigation into the Minneapolis police . If it concludes that citizens rights are persistently violated – through use of excessive force, racially-biased traffic stops or other forms of abuse – the justice department can sue or, as happens in most cases, enter into a consent decree that sets out a pattern of reforms over several years. The decree is overseen by a judge.

Ezekiel Edwards, director of the criminal law reform project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the experience of Portland, a city that regards itself as a liberal beacon, demonstrates the challenges and limitations of consent decrees.

“The federal government, through the department of justice and the power of the consent decree, can use its muscle to push police departments to end abusive practices, to become more transparent, to keep better data and to have to account for how they are changing their behavior," hy het gesê.

Edwards added: “It’s just that changing behavior within existing police departments, in giving them better training and more transparency, doesn’t get at the deeper root of the problem which is the structure of the police department itself, and the culture of the police department. Consent decrees, while they can be helpful, cannot be looked at as some sort of pollyannish solution to the deep-rooted and long simmering problems in many cities around the country with regards to their police departments.”

Los Angeles police department was placed under federal oversight in 2001 after years of abuse, including the police beating of Rodney King in 1991. While there was considerable resistance from the local officials and police officers at the time, 12 years later it was widely considered to have been a success. A Harvard study found there had been a significant fall in the police use of serious force by the LAPD and public satisfaction with the department rose to 83%.

In 2013, the police chief, Charlie Beck, praised the oversight for making “this a department that I am proud to hand over to my children”.

But the justice department findings in Portland suggest that changing an underlying police culture can be difficult.

The city came under federal scrutiny after the police shot dead a young Black man in mental distress who was unarmed and had his hands in the air. A justice department report found “a pattern of dangerous uses of force against persons who posed little or no threat” and placed the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) under a consent decree in 2014.

Vroeër vandeesmaand, the justice department wrote a formal letter of noncompliance to the PPB, accusing it of violating the agreement by using excessive force against Black Lives Matter demonstrators last summer.

Afsonderlik, US attorneys overseeing the agreement criticized the PPB for a series of abuses including one in which a sergeant fired impact munitions at a group of people who ran away when the police threatened to arrest them for having a “furtive” conversation half a mile from downtown protests. The sergeant claimed he was justified in shooting them because he said they were planning to join the protest.

“That justification does not comport with PPB policy or the Constitution,” said the letter from the US attorneys.

The letter also said the Portland police justified the indiscriminate use of force by treating everyone at the protests as if they were armed and involved in “active aggression”.

“This is a fundamentally flawed understanding of the constitutional and policy standard for use of force,” the US attorneys wrote.

Powerful police unions have also found ways to circumvent the decrees.

In Cleveland, a consent decree imposed in 2015 because of police use of excessive force, including tasering people in handcuffs, required officers to wear body cameras. But the union was able to block their use when officers were moonlighting for private companies, such as working as security at restaurants, even though they were in uniform, armed and using their police powers.

The Seattle police department was placed under federal oversight but when an officer punched a black woman in the face who was handcuffed and sitting in the back of a patrol car, the police union was able to get his dismissal overturned under an arbitration agreement despite the objections of the judge overseeing the consent decree. Seattle’s police union also undermined plans for a civilian led disciplinary system.

In 2017, criminologists at the University of Texas examined the effect of consent decrees on 23 police departments, including Los Angeles, New Orleans and Detroit as well as smaller suburban forces.

Michele Meitl, a co-author of the report, said their research found that the number of civil rights lawsuits against the police departments fell while they were under federal oversight, in some places by up to 36%, but rose again when the oversight was lifted.

“Generally we found was that there was more trust in police while the consent decree was in place. We did find, wel, that once the consent decree was lifted, the lawsuits did start to go back up," sy het gese. “So while it seemed like it was a good tool by the federal government to impose a consent decree, it remains to be seen how helpful it really is.”

Miriam Krinsky, founder of Just and Fair Prosecution, said that for federal oversight to make a difference in Minneapolis it will have to be long lasting.

“What’s critical is it can’t be a one time engagement, that’s short term. There needs to be an ongoing presence and monitoring, that leaves behind a structure for both internal and external oversight of that department," sy het gese.

Still Krinsky thinks that lessons have been learned.

“Over the years we’ve gotten a lot smarter about how to analyse whether change is really permeating a department. I do think that monitors and the nature of consent decrees have become more meaningful and more nuanced, and more willing to look at outcomes and hear from the community. Because sometimes even the data is only part of the picture, and the relationship with communities is every bit as important as numbers on the page," sy het gese.

Edwards, of the ACLU, said the deeper problem with consent decrees is that they reinforce existing policing policies.

“DoJ consent decrees of the past have not been focused on reducing the role and footprint of the police in the ways that are needed," hy het gesê.

“What is far more important now is reducing the role of police and removing them from roles and places where they are not needed, and/or are the least effective solution to a given problem. Whether DoJ is ready or able to kind of pivot appropriately in 2021 to different kinds of really profound and transformative reforms that are needed, including downsizing that the role of police, I think remains to be seen.”

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