Consent Decrees Force Changes to Policing. But Do Reforms Last?

“It’s kind of like the old saying, when everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority,” said Jason Johnson, who was a deputy police chief in Baltimore overseeing compliance with the city’s consent decree. In a recent column, he warned Louisville to bargain carefully. “When you lay out this massive consent decree, honestly, it’s like the department just stepped into a bucket of concrete.”

Mr. Johnson, who calls himself a “constructive opponent” of the decrees, said the layers of approval they require made it hard for Baltimore to implement changes swiftly. And, he said, the Justice Department wanted rules for officers that went further than the Constitution required, without regard for whether they hampered the ability to stop crime. “I can tell you from being at the table, there was no interest in having conversations around what the impact might be from some of these policies,” he said.

Departments also have to bear the costs of new technology, better equipment and better training, as well as fees for a monitor to check their compliance. Even so, believers point out that consent decrees may be far cheaper than unconstitutional policing. Minneapolis has paid out more than $70 million in police misconduct settlements over the past five years, including $27 million to the family of Mr. Floyd.

“What we’re talking about is broad institutional reform,” said David Douglass, the deputy monitor of the New Orleans consent decree and founder of a nonprofit group called Effective Law Enforcement for All, which helps communities develop voluntary reforms. “So, yeah, it’s expensive, but I think I would say, ‘So what?’ measured against the harm and the resulting benefit.”

One strength of consent decrees, for those who like them, is that they are not subject to the political winds that blow mayors and police chiefs in and out of office. In Baltimore, Michael Harrison, who was brought in as commissioner because of his success in implementing New Orleans’s police overhaul, just resigned, but the consent decree remains. Experience running a department with a consent decree has become a plum line on a chief’s résumé. In Minneapolis, the new chief is Brian O’Hara, who came from Newark, where he served as public safety director.

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