While these investigations are regarded as even more important amid heightened public scrutiny of law enforcement, there is disagreement on whether federal involvement in local policing leads to tangible reform, experts say.
Scrutiny’s on law enforcement in more ways
“Generally speaking, the department is supportive of state attorneys general exercising their authority to address systemic problems in local police departments,” a DOJ official told CNN.
The 10 women say that while on the job at the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) they were treated with contempt and subjected to a male-dominated “culture of race and sex discrimination” and “intense pervasive retaliation” when they complained about it, according to the lawsuit.
State AGs launch probes into police
Police departments targeted by investigations launched by attorneys general are typically in large cities and often follow scandals or high-profile deaths of people in police custody. It’s common for investigators to find problems with training, supervision, or policies.
After the investigation, there’s typically an agreement negotiated between the municipality that oversees the police department and the Department of Justice. That agreement is known as a consent decree, and there’s usually a lawyer or law firm paid by the city to make sure the department implements reforms as outlined in the agreement.
Not every state gives its attorney general authority to initiate investigations, and in some states, attorneys have sought court-ordered reform of departments through lawsuits.
In recent years, at least three state attorneys general have initiated investigations. Illinois and Colorado each gave their attorneys general the authority to investigate local police departments for problematic patterns, and California’s attorney general has had that authority for years.
“It was a comprehensive investigation, collaborative one . . . as they reviewed all of the uses of force, all the officer-involved shootings, citations, just a host of documents over a period of years,” said Greg Terry, chief of the Bakersfield Police Department. “Almost immediately we became proactive in seeking outside policy consultants to look at use of force policies, increased level of training and supervision and oversight of officers.”
A spokesperson for the union representing rank-and-file Bakersfield police officers didn’t respond to a request for comment.
According to the investigation’s findings, the agency “has a pattern and practice of racially biased policing, using excessive force, and failing to record required information when it interacts with the community,” the report states. Weiser will seek a federal consent decree that will require “specific changes and ongoing independent oversight,” his office announced.
The trouble with consent decrees
“After receiving the request from Joliet’s mayor and city officials, my office began a preliminary review of Joliet Police Department records and other information,” Raoul said. “It is clear that a formal investigation is needed to look at whether the department has engaged in patterns or practices of unlawful or unconstitutional policing.”
Raoul said that in the coming weeks, his office will conduct a “thorough, impartial and independent review of whether reforms are needed under the law.”
The Justice Department revealed a “pattern-or-practice of constitutional violations,” including excessive force and racially biased arrests. The probe ultimately led to the implementation of a federal consent decree in 2017 mandating systemic reform.
“It’s not a real report, it’s just checking boxes to show systemic patterns of abuses to be able to implement a consent decree. In theory I’m not against them, I just haven’t seen them working. Then you can’t get out from under them,” he said. Moskos also noted that consent decrees deal primarily with the department, but not crime.
“We really need to get better at how we measure the impacts of consent decrees,” Lopez added. “From what we can tell, it takes years for the full impacts to be felt, but there are some indications that you start to feel the impacts earlier than that,” Lopez said.
‘You have to have best practices’
The investigation into the Aurora Police Department found that “Aurora does not create and oversee appropriate expectations for responsible behavior, which leads to the use of excessive force and the violation of the civil rights of its residents,” according to a press release from the attorney general, announcing the findings.
A spokesperson for the union representing rank-and-file officers did not respond to a request for comment.
“Excessive and unnecessary force can happen when situations could have been handled in cooler manner but is unnecessarily and unduly escalated. One way it happens, someone shows up and the way they present is in a way that raises the temperature,” he said. “This situation could’ve involved no force but ends up involving significant force. That’s unnecessary, excessive. Lots of situations weren’t criminal, just problematic policing.”
Wexler of PERF said it’s important that everyone involved should know what’s expected of everyone else, and there needs to be some way to hold everyone to expectations.
“What we’ve learned from the last 25 years, there needs to be accountability. In terms of process and outcomes and expectations, at the federal level, that’s been a source of some concern,” Wexler said. “I’m talking about everyone. Whether the (Department of Justice), the monitor, the federal judge, there’s lots of people involved. The process has to be understood, it has to be fixed in terms of when it can be evaluated.”
Wexler said that the lack of a single national standard for anything related to policing creates issues for police departments which are often required to implement some change to their policies and conduct as a result of the investigations.
“There are no national guidelines. If you’re talking about traffic stops, early warning systems, de-escalation, dealing with mental health issues, dealing with the homeless … you have to have best practices,” he said. “There are no national guidelines. It becomes an issue.”