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John L. Worrall and Zachary A. Powell

Charged with enforcing the law and regulating human behavior, the police have considerable leeway in their ability to control the population. On occasion, situations arise in which police officers misuse their authority, resulting in racially discriminatory practices, illegal searches and seizures, abusive use of force, or other forms of misbehavior. In some cases, unconstitutional practices are isolated incidents that are restricted to the actions of a small group of officers; in other cases, misbehavior may be more emblematic of a systemic problem within a criminal justice agency. To the extent that a pattern or practice of unconstitutional behavior exists, the interest of any government, and the people governed, is in limiting official misconduct. One method of correcting unconstitutional behavior is through a consent decree, a court-ordered agreement following a major U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation that is designed to correct long-standing unconstitutional practices within police departments. Despite the fact that consent decrees have been available to the DOJ for nearly 25 years, their use is somewhat limited (especially lately, in light of the Trump administration’s resistance to their use). A small body of evidence suggests there is promise for consent decrees as a tool for correcting police misbehavior. Existing studies show consent decrees are correlated with boosted citizen perceptions of treated police departments, lower counts of civil rights litigation, and improved methods for recording and disciplining police misbehavior. The influence of a consent decree may gradually build up over time before lapsing post-treatment. In addition, focus group interviews with law enforcement officers suggest that many express apprehension about the goals of reform and the impact on the day-to-day lives of police officers. A number of questions remain unanswered that require further exploration from the field.