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The feds are investigating local police departments again. Here's what to expect

Matt Vasilogambros, on

Published in News & Features

“The challenges we face are deeply woven into our history; they did not arise today or last year,” Garland said. “Building trust between community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us, but we undertake this task with determination and urgency, knowing that change cannot wait.”


Three years after the horrific beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, Congress enacted a law in 1994 that gave the Justice Department authority to investigate local police departments to see whether there is a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutionality or civil rights abuses.

The measure allowed the federal government to look beyond individual officers to root out systemic issues in local law enforcement agencies. The first investigation took place in 1997, examining the Pittsburgh Police Department.

If these investigations find a trend of police misconduct that violates the U.S. Constitution, the federal government can negotiate a court-approved agreement with the local police department, called a consent decree, which ensures certain changes are made to the department’s practices, policies and oversight.

“There are cases across the United States where you find the police department is so lost or far removed from the Constitution of the United States that a federal intervention of that magnitude is not just necessary but required,” said Alex del Carmen, a professor of criminology and an associate dean at Tarleton State University in Texas. He also served on the federal monitoring teams for consent decrees in New Orleans and Puerto Rico.


Enforced by a judge and overseen by a court-approved monitor, consent decrees can take years to complete. The Oakland Police Department has been under a consent decree since 2003.

Over the past three decades, the Justice Department has conducted more than 70 investigations of local police departments. The Obama administration, for example, conducted 25 investigations and entered into 14 consent decrees.

These are robust investigations and agreements, said Jonathan M. Smith, who served as chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department from 2010 to 2015. But they fall short of the wholesale changes that many are calling for as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Our work was both essential and important, but it was limited in the scope of the kinds of things we’re talking about now, like reimagining public safety,” said Smith, who is now the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.


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