A Tale of Two Cities; LAPD’s Twelve Year Consent Decree

NOPD car

     In May of 2013 the Los Angeles Police Department was unceremoniously released from a twelve year consent decree in a three-line ruling by District Judge Gary Feess; the same federal judge responsible for extending LAPD’s original time frame from five years to ten, and eventually twelve years. The LAPD was the first municipal police agency to undergo a consent decree after Congress granted the Justice Department new powers to seek injunctive relief by suing state and local governments in federal court – powers extended specifically to address problems in the LAPD that would later be used in binding over 20 additional U.S. agencies in consent decrees.

     “When the decree was entered, LAPD was a troubled department whose reputation had been severely damaged by a series of crises, In 2008, as noted by the monitor, ‘LAPD has become the national and international policing standard for activities that range from audits to handling of the mentally ill to many aspects of training to risk assessment of police officers and more,’” Feess wrote of the release.

The sheer length of the consent decree was an often publicly stated frustration among police executives in Los Angeles over the years. The decree, originally set to expire in 2006, was extended by Judge Feess citing concerns over the slow implementation of mandated changes, followed again by an additional two years of “transitioning” before eventual release. The risk of a decade of oversight and the expense of such a sprawling endeavor remains a primary concern of city officials and criminal justice professionals in New Orleans (and taxpayers, for that matter). An examination of the Los Angeles consent decree, issues leading to a doubling of its lifespan, and its effects are worth a look as we discuss what to expect three years into New Orleans’ own consent decree. I have also included a link and summarized findings from an extensive study conducted by Harvard’s Kennedy School near the end of LAPD’s consent decree which heaps unprecedented credit on the agreement for everything from constitutional policing to lower crime and improved morale.

The basis for any municipal police agency consent decree revolves around issues of constitutional policing. The oft cited “pattern or practice” of constitutional abuses is the trigger that draws the ire of federal officials who then conduct exhaustive reviews of searches and seizures, use of force proclivity and documentation, supervision, training, and general departmental culture. I mention culture specifically as it is clear the Justice Department finds the stubborn and insular nature of police agencies troubling and actively seeks to fracture such barriers. Interestingly, the Harvard Kennedy School study defines the importance and purpose of law enforcement’s resistance to change, “Police organizations do not change easily. As in any high-stakes activity, stability and routines protect against risks, and the risks in policing can be deadly.” “It is a good thing that changing a police organization is difficult” (Stone, C., Foglesong, T., & Cole, C. [2009] Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree; The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD, Harvard Kennedy School, p 13).

The Los Angeles document was produced as a result of particular corruption in the Rampart Division of LAPD and the general consensus among interested parties that constitutional violations and excessive force were common among patrol divisions and street crimes units. The Los Angeles Consent Decree opens “This case arises out of a suit filed on November 3, 2001, by the United States Department of Justice against the City of Los Angeles, California, the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, and the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”). The suit alleges that the defendants engage in a pattern or practice of depriving individuals of constitutional rights through the use of excessive force, false arrests, and improper searches and seizures. The suit was filed under 42 U.S.C. 14141.”

Similar to New Orleans’ quarterly status hearings; as early as 2002 monitors chided LAPD for its pace in implementing some aspects of their agreement, especially technology to track race data and a system for flagging problematic officers. Perhaps more interesting was the monitors’ direct criticism in 2002 of “the presence of a vocal minority inside the LAPD that continue to fight to preserve the insular culture that led to the adoption of the decree. ‘They believe there is no problem with the LAPD, the problem is with ‘outsiders.’ ‘These ‘outsiders’ are portrayed as uninformed, biased, politically motivated, greedy and/or incompetent interlopers,’ ‘These officers do an enormous disservice to the majority of the LAPD and the community and negatively impact an institution they purport to love–the LAPD– and a cause they risk their lives for–public safety.’ ’This must and will change.’” Daunt, T. (May 2002) LAPD Not Making Reforms, Monitor Says, Los Angeles Times. While similar sentiments certainly exist locally, the New Orleans Police Department has never been accused of any institutional or factional resistance to the consent decree.

Regardless of institutional sentiment, getting out from under our consent decree in any reasonable timeframe will clearly require outrunning mandates. Historically, including Los Angeles, Federal Judges are reticent to release cities that are “almost in compliance.” By 2006, at 70% compliant, District Judge Feess tacked on five full years to L.A.’s consent decree. Pundits surmised this was less to do with estimated completion and more to do with a lack of trust in the agency to follow through without continued supervision. So what does New Orleans have at stake in a five year commitment? ….and ten years? According to the Los Angeles Times their consent decree was running a $10 million annual tab in the city. Estimates for New Orleans’ consent decree put the cost at roughly $55 million for five years; conservatively $110 million if we end up with a decade of oversight. That New Orleans’ consent decree is expected to reach those figures should be cause for some serious concern; Los Angeles staffs around ten thousand police officers with a consent decree slightly less expensive than our own.

In drawing from L.A.’s experience, it is important that New Orleans remains aware that falling behind on mandates tied LAPD and DOJ together for over a decade in a consent decree that, like our own, was anticipated to last five years. In 2006 Los Angeles, the Justice Department itself implored the Court to release the city; it was solely the District Judge (Feess) who decided LAPD needed several additional years of oversight to ensure compliance with remaining items. When the issue was again revisited in 2009, everyone from then Chief William Bratton, DOJ, and the Los Angeles Times called for and expected a release – in an abundance of caution it seems, Judge Feess ordered a “transition period” that lasted until 2013.

All police agency consent decrees are substantially similar – designed to address use of force and constitutional issues above all else; however, many of DOJ’s own philosophies on law enforcement are imposed. DOJ loves use of force metrics, and consent decrees appear to be, among other things, a roundabout way of obtaining reliable big city data on how often officers are involved in critical incidents, with whom, and why. DOJ also places emphasis on structures that facilitate police-community collaboration. Civilian oversight clearly is also a common theme in DOJ enclaves.

Predictably, both DOJ and LAPD executives claim the consent decree and its completion were a resounding success, however there appears to be no bigger cheerleader for L.A.’s consent decree than Harvard’s Kennedy School which credits the document with all kinds of positives; from less use of force, better community relationships, improved morale, even lower crime. I have linked the study so the reader can make their own assessment, in brief however, it is sufficient to say here that the Harvard study draws some uncanny conclusions. Improbably, and without much examination; the Harvard study finds that through the implementation of the Consent Decree pedestrian and vehicle stops actually increased as did the quality of arrests resulting from those stops. The study specifically addresses the concept of “de-policing” and dismisses any occurrence of this phenomenon in L.A. The study also finds lower crime through the period 2002 – 2013. I dislike analyzing raw data, it is dull and lacks the kind of context that interests me on a given issue. The Harvard study’s numbers are raw and contain almost nothing in the way of context. As a former stockbroker I find the postulate “correlation does not equal causation” patently applies in Harvard’s numbers. Indeed, most of the nation saw lower crime from 2002 – 2013. I find it relevant that crime dropped despite the consent decree. I am not knocking the consent decree; rather realistically the Harvard report notes consensus that “a report that took one hour before the consent decree takes five (hours) now” (Stone, C., Foglesong, T., & Cole, C. [2009] Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree; The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD, Harvard Kennedy School, p 13). Harvard’s numbers are simply inexplicable considering the increased burden on officers. The report presents the numbers without considering what may be behind them – drastic reallocation of desk officers to patrol? – we cannot know from the raw data. The report documents focus groups where officers commonly said they “sometimes avoid contact with citizens and ‘look the other way’ when observing illegal behavior in order not to create additional work for themselves or provoke the intervention of a sergeant or watch commander” (p 19). A 2003 survey of officers found that 79% believed the consent decree impeded the ability of LAPD to reduce crime and 89% agreed with the statement that “because of fear of being unfairly disciplined, many LAPD officers are not proactive in doing their jobs.” A full 93% of LAPD officers surveyed agreed with the statement “the threat of community complaints prevents police officers from being proactive on the street” (p 19).

Whether the long term effects of LAPD’s consent decree are positive or lasting remains to be seen; the agency itself, a majority of the L.A. community, and indeed many officers are behind the reform.  What is certain, is that the New Orleans Police Department will have to contend with its own consent decree and some circumstances unique to our experience – chief of which remains attrition. Attrition had no noticeable effect on LAPD at any time during its consent decree. This has certainly not been the case in New Orleans. In an ongoing effort to reform law enforcement where needed, and control crime; DOJ, city governments, and police agencies themselves will have to address the very real consequences of stagnant law enforcement wages, higher expectations – combined with unprecedented scrutiny and near constant negative publicity of late; consent decree or no consent decree – it appears fewer people are willing to work in law enforcement. The law enforcement side of this reform push – is a renewed demand for funding and solutions to social issues that have been neglected by Federal, State, and local governments for decades and forced onto law enforcement – homelessness, addiction, mental health, and education among many others. While few deny the necessity of evolving law enforcement, a half century of relegating every social issue to police action is a leading contributor to the tension in our cities today. LAPD should celebrate its successes, but LAPD’s experience is not necessarily our default success. New Orleans is facing a consent decree at a time of sea change in overall national attitudes about criminal justice policy.


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2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities; LAPD’s Twelve Year Consent Decree

  1. This is a great article. Well thought out and well presented. It clearly shows how government bureaucracy and the judicial system can take a good concept and totally run it into the ground. Isn’t it something how those who never fight always have the best advice for winning the battles?

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