Justice Dept. reform of police departments likely reduces civil rights lawsuits – study

Justice Dept. reform of police departments likely reduces civil rights lawsuits – study
Reform of a local police department as mandated by the US Department of Justice "may contribute" to reduced civil rights lawsuits filed against that policing agency, a new study says. The Trump administration has vowed to retard such reform interventions.

Researchers with the University of Texas at Dallas posits that court-enforced reforms to local police departments negotiated with the DOJ could be beneficial to a city that often faces civil claims. Cities that have agreed to DOJ consent decrees have seen a 43-percent decrease in civil rights lawsuits against their reformed police departments, the study released Monday said.

The research analyzed civil cases filed between 1990 and 2013 against 23 jurisdictions around the country that had all entered into consent decrees with the DOJ.

As of January, the Department of Justice (DOJ) was involved in enforcing 20 consent degrees and agreements with police departments around the nation, while four other departments were under investigation. Those investigations encompass a vast range of alleged misdeeds and abusive practices by the likes of the Baltimore and Cleveland police departments, among many others.

Reforms springing from such consent decrees "may contribute to a modest reduction in the probability of (civil rights) filings occurring," the researchers wrote, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Civil-rights claims in a city may "indicate some degree of community sentiment toward the local police department," the research says. Yet, it added, little empirical evidence exists that explains the impacts of consent decrees, including any effects they have on civil lawsuits over police misconduct.

"It remains to be seen, however, whether these changes are lasting or lapsing in the long term," the study noted.

The study's authors acknowledged limitations in their research. The study does not include all instances of police abuse, given not all such incidents result in a lawsuit, they said. Furthermore, the study only focused on departments that have entered into consent decrees while leaving out cities that have not undergone DOJ-led reform efforts.

"We caution readers to interpret our results exactly as they appear: ... civil rights filings seem to decline in terms of risk after DOJ intervention," said the researchers, led by criminology professor John Worrall. "We do not make any claim as to the DOJ's effect on use-of-force incidents, citizen complaints, or other potential indicators of inappropriate police behavior."

Cleveland, for example, has paid out at least $13.2 million in settlement claims based on allegations of police abuse or misconduct since November 2014, the Plain Dealer reported.

It was in that month when a Cleveland police officer fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing on the grounds of a recreation center with a replica pellet gun that had its orange safety tip removed. The city would later agree to pay $6 million to the family of Rice.

In December 2014, a DOJ report concluded that "systematic deficiencies,""inadequate training" and "ineffective policies" were rampant within the ranks of the Cleveland Police Department between 2010 and 2013, and that "CDP officers too often use unnecessary and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution."

The DOJ and the city of Cleveland reached a reform deal in May 2015.

In January, the DOJ said that the Chicago Police Department engaged in a systematic pattern civil rights violations and wanton use of deadly force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.

In 2015, the DOJ found routine constitutional violations by the Ferguson (Mo.) Police Department that severely impacted a "community where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents."

While the presidential administration of Barack Obama actively entered into police-reform agreements with cities like Chicago and Ferguson, the Trump administration quickly signaled its disapproval for such actions upon taking office.

In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said his DOJ would think twice before investigating local policing agencies, moving to reverse low morale among "unfairly maligned" law enforcement in the US.

"[R]ather than dictating to local police how to do their jobs – or spending scarce federal resources to sue them in court – we should use our money, research and expertise to help them figure out what is happening and determine the best ways to fight crime," the attorney general said.

In April, Sessions requested a delay in the police reform plan for the Baltimore Police Department set by the Obama administration. A federal judge rejected the delay request. The Obama-era investigation found Baltimore PD was conducting unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, disproportionately targeting African Americans, using excessive force, and retaliating against individuals for engaging in constitutionally-protected expression. 

A 2010 study of police-misconduct litigation found that only about one-third of 925 such lawsuits in a ten-month period resulted in an award for the plaintiff, according to the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP). In that period, the median award for all successful police misconduct litigation was $225,000, the NPMSRP reported.