DOJ Police Probes And Consent Decrees Spike Under Obama

Legal settlements between the Department of Justice and local police departments across the country have skyrocketed under the Obama administration.

The settlements are known as consent decrees and are reached after a federal investigation. The departments typically do not have to admit guilt or liability.

The latest law enforcement agency to enter a consent decree agreement with the DOJ was the Cleveland Police Department, the 16th one since President Obama took office. The Baltimore Police Department entered a consent decree agreement earlier in the month.

Similar to the controversial local policing events leading up to investigations and DOJ consent decree agreements imposed on law enforcement in Baltimore and Cleveland, the death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson Missouri eventually triggered a federal investigation.

According to Fraternal Order of Police president Chuck Canterbury, consent decrees have increased at least a 50 percent since 2009.

The Obama Justice Department, under former Attorney General Eric Holder, boasted about the number of federal investigations its Civil Rights Division opened compared to the Bush administration.

“In the past five fiscal years, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has opened over 20 investigations into police departments, more than twice as many investigations than were opened in the previous five fiscal years,” a December 2014 Justice Department statement said.

Each consent decree is preceded by a federal investigation, and the consent decree can place a police department under court monitoring for several years.

The 1994 passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which became law after the 1992 Rodney King riots, allowed the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to probe police departments for acts of unconstitutional misconduct. The interpretation of police misconduct relating to race, gender and sexual orientation has broadened under the Obama administration.

“In recent years, DOJ has expanded this focus area to include discussion of ‘implicit’ or ‘unconscious’ bias, by officers who are not aware of biases in their actions,” the Police Executive Research Forum wrote in 2013. “For example, the Seattle findings letter states that ‘biased policing is not primarily about the ill-intentioned officer, but rather the officer who engages in discriminatory practices subconsciously.'”

Cleveland’s consent decree will force the city’s police department, under DOJ enforcement, to follow a police reform plan and provide a systemic process that will deal with officers charged with misconduct. The city of Cleveland also agreed to change its search-and-seizure guidelines, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports, and create “bias free” policing strategy.

The Seattle Police Department’s 2012 consent decree “detailed requirements on use of force, crisis intervention, policies and training about stops and detentions, supervision of officers, and bias free policing.”

Through consent decrees, Early Intervention Systems (EIS) were placed upon departments in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C, among other cities. This particular system is designed to identify officers who could be participating in inappropriate activities or risky behavior.

“Preventing biased policing” institutes policies and training methods in local departments intended to keep officers from using race, ethnicity, or national origin to determine “reasonable suspicion or probable cause.” However, race, ethnicity, or national origin can be used for a suspect’s description. Also, officers may be required to report any other officer they observe engaging in biased policing.