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Do federal consent decrees improve local police departments? This study says they might

Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department last month. He has ordered a review of all consent decrees entered between the Justice Department and local police departments. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions took office in February, one of his first steps was to order a review of federal consent decrees entered in Justice Department lawsuits against local police departments. Consent decrees are a tool the Justice Department and the courts use to reform departments seen as violating citizens’ civil rights through assorted police misconduct. Sessions wants to know whether federal intervention is really the most effective approach.

But even before Sessions ordered his review last month, researchers at the University of Texas-Dallas had set out to answer the question empirically by looking at this: Does a consent decree result in fewer civil rights lawsuits against a police department?  The answer is yes, although the researchers quickly add there could be many reasons why the number of lawsuits fell, and so the “consent decree process may contribute to a modest reduction” in civil rights suits, according to a study released Monday in the journal Criminology & Public Policy by Texas criminologists John L. Worrall, Zachary A. Powell and Michele Bisaccia Meitl.

Sessions order Justice Department to review all police reform agreements

The researchers looked at 23 police departments that agreed to consent decrees between 1990 and 2013, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Detroit, New Orleans, Cleveland as well as suburban departments such as Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. The study found the average maximum reduction in the risk for litigation can be as much as 36 percent, usually while the consent decree is in effect, but that lawsuits start to trend back up once the decree lifts.

The study found larger jurisdictions attracted higher percentages of lawsuits, and that other variables in a city or county can affect why civil rights lawsuits are filed. But Worrall said the study was the first of its kind to try to gauge the effectiveness of consent decrees by measuring the number of civil rights suits filed before and after a consent decree was entered, which could reflect whether police are behaving better, and thus incurring less costly litigation. In general, jurisdictions under consent decrees see fewer civil rights suits, the study found. The average number of civil rights suits filed per year dropped anywhere from 23 percent to 36 percent after a federal intervention, although the authors acknowledged other reasons could also cause the drops.

Consent decrees are expensive, with costs estimated at $10 million or more in cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans for new training and monitoring to reduce police misconduct. But in a cost-benefit analysis, Worrall said, the costs of retraining a police department may be less than the multimillion- dollar settlements paid out to families of those killed in police shootings. “If, at the end of the day,” Worrall said, “it saves police departments money, it’s money well spent.”

Last month, Sessions ordered a review of decrees already in place and those pending to ensure they do not work against a primary goal of fighting crime. Sessions has often criticized the effectiveness of consent decrees and has vowed in recent speeches, and this op-ed in USA Today, to more strongly support law enforcement.

But Worrall noted that part of the Justice Department’s mission statement is to protect the rights of all citizens; “to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans,” the statement reads. Though many have argued that the federal government shouldn’t be meddling in local or state police affairs, “that’s [the Justice Department’s] job,” Worrall said. “To not do that means that it’s shirking its duty.”

Here is the report: