Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department aggressively used consent decrees and court monitors to push changes at police forces found to engage in a consistent pattern of abuse, as people nationwide decried the police killings of Black men in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo.
In some cases the Justice Department has not found sufficient evidence to charge officers in civil rights investigations, but it used consent decrees to address patterns of abuse by police forces, attacking the underlying issues even when no individuals were held accountable for a person’s death.
In the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the Justice Department issued an 86-page report that essentially cleared Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him, of wrongdoing. However, a six-month investigation found that the Ferguson Police Department routinely violated the constitutional rights of its Black residents and was incentivized to do so to generate revenue for the city.
In the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy shot by a Cleveland police officer in 2014, Justice Department officials doubted that they could build a civil rights case against the officer, but they obtained a consent decree to overhaul the Cleveland Police Department. Lawyers for Tamir’s family have asked Mr. Garland to reopen the inquiry into his death in light of allegations by a whistle-blower that Trump-era officials stopped prosecutors from pursuing a false statements case against the officer.
Police officials generally acknowledge that consent decrees can be useful, and they have on some occasions asked the Justice Department to appoint monitors to help advance changes to their departments.
“They can help restore integrity to a police department, hold people accountable and help come up with policies, programs, procedures and best practices,” said Daniel Linskey, a managing director in Kroll’s Security Risk Management practice and the former superintendent in chief of the Boston Police Department.
But he said that police departments sometimes lose their ability to deploy resources and respond to threats when outside monitors, usually judges, are given too much power. There can also be financial incentives to extend the monitorship, he said.