Recently, the Washington Post ran an article about consent decrees in policing. Entitled “Forced Reforms, Mixed Results” and based on a review by both the newspaper and also the PBS series Frontline, the article notes that “federal interventions at troubled police departments across the country drag on for years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.” This is an accurate observation – and reflects some of the challenges inherent in police reform and rooting out dysfunctional practices that can breed injustice and placing the agency on a path toward positive, sustainable cultural change.

Consent Decrees Are, By Nature, At Least Partially Adversarial

The article’s central premise should not come as such a surprise to its authors – or its readers. Until recently consent decrees were rarely seen as an opportunity for positive reform because, by their nature, they formalize an adversarial relationship. Even when the process reflects agreement by both parties – the U.S. government and the city or jurisdiction itself – the consent decree process is designed to compel change through judicial oversight.

True Change in Police Reform Is Rarely Quick and Cheap

Nonetheless, consent decrees are necessary as a critical intervention mechanism to protect the constitutional rights of citizens. Consent decrees are rare, occurring in only 16 of the almost 18,000 police departments in the United States. In all 16 cases, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found substantial patterns or practices of constitutional violations by the agency in question. In most cases, these police departments were trapped in a downward spiral of unconstitutional policing practices that required intervention and police reform. As a law enforcement expert – and as an American citizen – that is exactly when I would expect the justice arm of the U.S. government to take decisive action.

Police Reform Requires Buy-In from the Agency – At Some Level

Of course, the results of consent decrees are mixed. You can mandate change, but it is very difficult to force it on the unwilling.

In several cities under consent decree now, the police department has not accepted its obligation to reform, and is simply biding its time and “serving out its sentence.” In these cities, the consent decrees will be costly. But unless the police department accepts its position and buys into its responsibility to conduct critical self-evaluation and police reform, the department and its officers will not change. 

In cities where the best progress with police reform has been made under consent decrees, leaders embraced the opportunity to change and used it to address problems with genuine purpose. The City of Seattle, for example, has implemented training and policies designed to address the core of its policing issues, not just the symptoms. The department has used the opportunity to bring about systematic change.

Consent Decrees Represent Last Resort in Collaborative Police Reform

Remember, consent decrees only occur in a tiny fraction of police departments – and the intervention mechanism is truly a last ditch effort to stop bad behavior. So how are progressive police agencies able to resolve issues in their community on their own? Largely through critical self-assessment. Engaging the community. Building trust through a commitment to community policing, problem-solving, fair and impartial policing and procedural justice. This is the inspiration behind the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) “Collaborative Reform” initiative.

As the COPS Office defines it: “Collaborative reform is a long-term, holistic strategy that identifies issues within an agency that may affect public trust. It offers recommendations based on a comprehensive agency assessment for how to resolve those issues and enhance the relationship between the police and the community. Agencies selected to participate must demonstrate a commitment to address the recommendations and undertake significant reform efforts.”

Collaborative Reform is Voluntary – But Requires Real Commitment

The process is based on the principle that, through the commitment shared by the city, community and DOJ, the department can identify, create and institutionalize real reform that will change the culture of the agency and stand the test of time.

  • If selected, a city can expect the COPS Office to work with it to create goals for the process and then direct a comprehensive agency assessment that will identify the agency’s strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations on areas for improvement.
  • These goals and recommendations are summarized in a report released publically. 
  • The COPS Office provides technical assistance to the agency while monitoring its progress towards reform. This progress is reported to the community through an interim and final report over an 18-month period. This work can then also serve as a roadmap for similar jurisdictions confronting comparable challenges.

The Future of Policing and Police Reform in the U.S.

I agree with the Post article’s implication that the consent decree process has not fully lived up to its potential. Nonetheless, consent decrees are an essential tool needed to protect the constitutional rights of citizens in a community whose police continue unconstitutional policing practices. I suspect agencies under a consent decree will continue to be a very small percentage of the nation’s broader police community.

The real future in policing in the United States, however, resides in the promise of collaborative reform, which has been and always will be the key to progressive policing. As the single more powerful and effective means of broader police reform, collaborative reform is the frontline strategy that will help agencies correct their deficiencies, build on their strengths and establish a trusted relationship with the community.

Learn more about Hillard Heintze’s Law Enforcement Consulting, and commission an independent assessment of your police department operations – from constitutional policing to use of force.