Consent Decrees

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
2017, Vol. 20(3) 239–249
Consent Decrees:
! The Author(s) 2017
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An Approach to
DOI: 10.1177/1098611117709591
Police Accountability
and Reform
Geoffrey P. Alpert1, Kyle McLean1, and
Scott Wolfe2
Federal consent decrees have been a method of police reform available to the federal
government since the 1990s. The consent decree process has been shrouded in
secrecy for many years. Recently, the methods and data have become available
allowing for more detailed analyses of the objectives and outcomes of these agree-
ments. As a result, several reviews of consent decrees have been conducted, noting
the successes and failures. Overall, consent decrees are successful in the short term
but have not been sustainable. With the changing political landscape, consent decrees
may not be available in the near future, and efforts will revert back to the individual
agencies and their political entities. This special issue provides a window into the
inner-workings of consent decrees through the perspectives of individuals who are
involved with them. The authors of the articles are all involved with consent decrees
and are reporting their experiences and assessments.
consent decree, police reform, constitutional policing
Police accountability has taken many forms during the past several decades.
In Walker and Archibold’s (2014) The New World of Police Accountability,
the authors provide an excellent analysis of these concerns and a look into the
1University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA
2Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Geoffrey P. Alpert, University of South Carolina, 1305 Greene Street, Columbia, SC 293208, USA.

Police Quarterly 20(3)
future. Walker and Archibold (and Walker, 2016) not only walk us through the
contemporary phases of accountability but discuss the consent decree (CD) as a
recent opportunity for reform (Walker, 2016, pp. 25–26). Although CDs have
been around for more than 20 years, they, and especially the data they generate,
have been conf‌idential and therefore shrouded in secrecy. As a result, crimin-
ologists have paid precious little attention to them (but see Civil Rights Division,
U.S. Department of Justice, 2017). This has been a missed opportunity for the
f‌ield of policing and the reform movement that has often been guided by chiefs
and command staf‌f internally and inf‌luences external to the police (see Noble &
Alpert, 2009). For example, Walker1 points out that a content analysis of the
Findings Letters would provide a rich, detailed account of what the Department
of Justice (DOJ) believes is happening on the streets that these troubled agencies
control—and that there are many similarities among those departments reviewed
by the Civil Rights Division (Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice,
2017).2 In the most recent CDs, outcome measures have been added, and enor-
mous amounts of qualitative and quantitative data are collected to establish
compliance with the CD. However, these data are rarely analyzed or made
public beyond the required summary reporting by the monitors.
Fortunately, this trend of secrecy is shifting and we are beginning to see the
results of the ef‌forts agencies under CDs are making, and the performance out-
comes they are achieving. In 2016, a conference titled ‘‘Implementation of Police
Department Consent Decrees: Working Together toward Institutional Change’’
was held at Texas A&M Law School. The conference brought together an inter-
esting combination of those involved in the decrees, DOJ attorneys, judges who
determine compliance, monitors who assist the judges, police chiefs who are
under CDs, and command staf‌f from other agencies that are under investigation
by DOJ with the goals to discuss lessons learned and how reform can be best
managed.3 Hopefully, the presentations and discussions that transpired during
this conference will be the springboard for reform that involves all parties.
A second step in this ef‌fort is the publication of this special issue of Police
Quarterly and the articles written by some of the participants at the conference.
This special issue cannot cover all areas of interest involved in a CD.
However, we have selected several important contributions that involve critical
areas of a CD, including the involvement of the DOJ, police managers, and
monitors. In our overview, we will discuss a few of the broad issues involved
in a CD, review f‌indings from the few studies that have looked at the impact of a
CD, and introduce the articles that explore specif‌ic areas in more detail.
An Introduction to the CD
Under several Attorneys’ General, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ has
investigated and negotiated reform ef‌forts with many police agencies. It is not
clear how the new administration and Attorney General will respond to the issue

Alpert et al.
of police reform, as some have questioned the interventionist role of the federal
government in local and state matters (see Civil Right’s Division, U.S.
Department of Justice, 2017; Harmon, 2009; Rushin, 2015). However, early
indications suggest that Attorney General Sessions will not look favorably on
CDs. In a March 31, 2017 memorandum to all DOJ department heads and U.S.
Attorneys, Sessions called for the DOJ to review all current CDs and related
reform ef‌forts initiated under the Obama administration (Sessions, Jef‌frey.
Department of Justice, 2017).
Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of
1994, Public Law 103-322 established the legal provision which has allowed the
DOJ to intervene in instances where allegations are made that constitutional
policing is not followed as a matter of patterns and practices. Alternatively,
of‌f‌icials can request DOJ look into police activities in specif‌ic agencies which
may lead to investigations that determine that the statute has been violated.
Most agencies negotiate with DOJ and enter into one of the multiple mechan-
isms DOJ uses to negotiate reform with the agency, with the CD being the most
One of the more innovative programs developed in 2011 by the Of‌f‌ice of
Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Of‌f‌ice) is the Collaborative
Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance (see COPS Of‌f‌ice Collaborative
Reform).4 The Collaborative Reform process...

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