DOJ Police Probes And Consent Decrees Spike Under Obama

Kerry Picket Political Reporter
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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.

Police departments may have to establish policies and provide training to prevent “gender bias” policing with sexual assaults. This mandate may come about if a department’s rate of finding claims of sexual assaults, when handling a sex crime investigation, as “unfounded” to be relatively high.

Alternately, the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), has also investigated police departments like Las Vegas and Philadelphia. However, the COPS office cannot file civil lawsuits, like the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, if police departments do not follow their recommendations.

In 2013, PERF writes that the New Orleans Police Department was slapped with a 122-page consent decree full of mandates and policy changes that includes “use of force, searches and seizures, arrests, interrogations, performance evaluations, misconduct complaints, off-duty work assignments, and more.”

“They’ve been doing consent decrees in the United States since the early 90s. Many departments go through them and once they successfully complete the agreement, the monitors all go away and control of everything is returned back to the city so I don’t think this is anything new,” Canterbury told TheDC. “There has been an uptick under the Obama administration of investigations versus the Bush administration. But even the Bush administration had consent decrees.”

However, Main Justice also points out that the Bush administration DOJ put forth less consent decrees, and the Obama Justice Department specifically targeted police departments under the realm of discrimination based on race or gender among other things.

Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told Main Justice that Holder’s changes to the DOJ was an “evolution of the department” and that Holder met with the organization when he first came to the office.

“He indicated at that time that he wanted to focus on civil rights and criminal justice matters. He wanted that to become a major part of his work,” Arnwine said, noting that Holder “became more enmeshed in these issues as he exercised his authority as chief law enforcement officer of the land.”

One December 2014 study notes that the Bush administration also changed an internal Justice Department policy that forbade DOJ officials from working with advocacy groups during police probes.

Following President Obama’s appointment of Holder, the policy was changed back and Holder made it clear upon his arrival at DOJ, in a 2009 speech, that the U.S. is a “nation of cowards” for not having candid discussions about race.

During Obama’s term, groups like the NAACP, ACLU, CAIR, ADL, and National Council of La Raza (NCLR) have consistently called for Justice Department civil rights probes the department eventually engaged in. His 2009 pick to lead the division, Tom Perez, was president of pro-amnesty organization Casa de Maryland, a close ally to NCLR.

Before Perez’s exit in 2014, the division awarded National Council of La Raza, Operation Hope, National Community Reinvestment Coalition and Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America a cut of the $16.6 billion settlement with Bank of America.

The Senate blocked President Obama’s next appointment of Debo Adegbile, a former NAACP Legal Defense Fund official, to head up the civil rights division in September 2014. It was found he filed a brief arguing that racial discrimination occurred during the jury selection of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Obama chose from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund pool again when he nominated Vanita Gupta to be acting attorney general in October of 2014, one month after Adegbile’s confirmation fell apart.

Additionally, the Justice Department appears more interested in how many times a police officer is involved in a shooting than physical attacks on law enforcement. Police departments are required by law to enter a report when an officer discharges a weapon while on duty.

This information is sent to the Justice Department thereafter. As a result of the mandated reporting of such numbers, federal funding is provided to collect this information.

Federally funded statistics give a breakdown that includes race, gender, age and other data specifics. However, police departments are not required to report the numbers of assaults and murders of law enforcement officers.

“Nobody knows those statistics. Those statistics are not maintained by the Department of Justice and they are the federal agency that gathers that information. There’s so much voluntary reporting and there’s so many assaults on police officers, but it’s voluntary reporting,” Canterbury said, noting that other data keeping organizations say that  57,000 officers are assaulted each year, with 9,000 or more resulting in serious injury.

He explained, “Four of the largest cities in America — Houston, Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago don’t report those stats to the federal government and there’s no mandatory reporting. And we are not opposed to mandatory reporting for officers involved in shootings but we would like to see mandatory reporting of assaults on police officers so that we will know those statistics,” noting the federal government will not pay for involuntary statistics gathering on the issue.

“We do know that from statistics that are gathered that police shoot many more whites then they do African-Americans.”

Canterbury added, “It works out in the way that the crime demographics run out. Unfortunately, in this country, young African-American males commit a lot of violent crime.”