Before signing a consent decree, Louisville should read the fine print: Opinion

In the wake of high-profile police-involved incidents, calls to reform often dysfunctional departments grow deafening. Like a superhero, the Department of Justice heeds those calls for help, wielding its trusty tool – the federal consent decree or court-monitored agreement with the city to implement police reforms.

But that blunt instrument often proves to be ineffective at fixing the real problems besetting the targeted law enforcement agencies while demoralizing sworn officers, burdening local budgets, lasting for years beyond its expiration date, and harming public safety in the process.

Now, following the controversial police killing of Breonna Taylor, DOJ lawyers stand ready to sue the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department after issuing the findings of its wide-ranging investigation. Two more cities, Minneapolis and Phoenix, await the results of similar federal investigations.

More:'It's heartbreaking': Breonna Taylor's mother says DOJ report shows what we already knew

But before cities and law enforcement agencies sign onto these agreements, they should learn from other jurisdictions and negotiate in the best interests of their citizens, not just cede to the pressure to accept the Justice Department’s terms as written.

Justice Department investigations into major agencies always seem to confirm a “pattern and practice” of civil rights violations exists, rousing suspicion that the investigations’ outcomes were predetermined.

Cities usually enter into direct negotiations with the federal government to accept a court-monitored settlement, or consent decree, specifying actions the department must take to remedy the Department of Justice’s charges.  But consent decrees are not a quick, or inexpensive, fix.

These settlements are agreed to by the city under duress in most cases, with city leaders either eager to appease community demands or powerless to push back against the might of the federal government.

That perceived leverage has resulted in city after city acceding to nearly all the federal government’s demands – reasonable or not – often with poor results.

Before they sign on the dotted line, cities and police agencies who face a looming federal consent decree should do an honest self-assessment of their problems, fully understand the proposed agreement’s remedies and requirements, and what impact implementation will have on the city, its agencies, and its citizens.

Accepting a consent decree without carefully considering the impact of each and every paragraph can harm the community much more than the ills a decree seeks to remedy – I know, I helped negotiate and implement Baltimore Police’s consent decree.

City leaders need to consider what problems need fixing to ensure law enforcement is effective at both respecting the rights of citizens and protecting public safety. Building and maintaining community trust is vital to any effective public safety strategy, but ineffective crime prevention erodes community trust as well.

The DOJ will push for a decree that takes no account of the police department’s need to protect the public from crime. Its singular focus will be carefully regulating every aspect of daily police work. And its demand to implement complex policies will grind to a halt a significant portion of the department’s crime fighting work.

In almost every jurisdiction where consent decrees were imposed, crime – especially violence – rose, and sometimes dramatically so. Albuquerque’s violent crime spiked 61% in the two years following its agreement, Seattle experienced a 27% increase, New Orleans saw a 20% rise, and Baltimore – with already elevated crime rates – saw violence jump another 11%.

Police reforms should be prudent and achievable

These unintended consequences don’t mean reforms aren’t necessary, but that reforms should be prudent and achievable. Both Seattle and New Orleans are a decade into their consent decree but cannot break free – the monitors and judges overseeing the agreement hang on, despite initial goals being met.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, no apologist for police misconduct, has asked to lift her city’s agreement, saying the court and monitors’ arbitrary decisions and delays prove “the objective goals of the Decree have all but vanished.” Seattle, per its monitors who are paid handsomely for their indefinite oversight jobs, is “close” to exiting the now 11-year long agreement but has been offered no specified timeline.

Consent decrees are expensive

And consent decrees are expensive. (Court monitor fees had grown so exorbitant that Attorney General Merrick Garland intervened to cap them in 2021.) Chicago, whose decree was just extended for three more years, expects to spend upwards of $100 million. Louisville is budgeting between $8 to $10 million per year for its pending agreement or 5% of the police budget, a figure that will likely balloon.

And these delays have another unseen consequence – the public doesn’t believe the department actually improved, even if the judge and monitors agree to end the decree.

If a consent decree is truly necessary – and there are many who believe it is – it must have a laser focus on the most pressing concerns. Significant reforms can be made very quickly by simply establishing realistic benchmarks, adequately funding them and ensuring leadership is held accountable for implementing them on-time and on-budget. Unfortunately, this isn’t how consent decree driven reform works.

Jason C. Johnson
Jason C. Johnson

Jason Johnson is the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and was Deputy Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department (2016-2018), where he oversaw the department’s consent decree negotiations and implementation.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville police must consider closely before signing consent decree