Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
The winter of 2012 found officers in the East Haven, Conn., police department copping an attitude.
Hanging over their heads was a newly approved U.S. Department of Justice agreement to stop East Haven police from discriminating against Latinos.
“A number of officers exhibited attitudes of cynicism and frustration,” wrote then-federal monitor Kathleen O’Toole in a compliance report. Since then, many problem and disgruntled officers have moved on.
“More recently,” she wrote earlier this year, “the majority (of officers) exhibit pride, camaraderie, and greater professionalism … .The change that has emerged is truly remarkable.”
O’Toole in June became the chief of police of the Seattle police department, which is two years into its own federal consent decree after the DOJ found a pattern or practice of excessive force there in 2011.
Seattle police were accused of unjustified use of impact weapons, unjustified escalation of minor encounters into force events, particularly against individuals with mental illness or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
From East Haven, Conn., to Seattle, Wash., and now in Albuquerque, law enforcement agencies in 17 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are under the gun to reform their way of policing.
Last week, in a mostly symbolic vote, Albuquerque’s City Council endorsed the city’s Oct. 31 settlement agreement with the DOJ to overhaul the Albuquerque Police Department’s use of force.
The next important step is the selection of an independent monitor to track compliance with the reforms in the 940-officer department.
Over the past five years, DOJ civil rights investigations of nearly 30 law enforcement agencies have led to varying degrees of federal intervention and oversight, department records show.
The most common Justice Department findings: improper use of force, discriminatory policing, and unlawful stops and searches.
The top remedies proposed: additional training, clearer policies and better supervision of officers.
Does federal oversight work? Consider the case of Detroit, Mich.
Detroit police have had 17 fatal shootings over the past five years, city officials say.
Compare that to the 47 fatal police shootings in the five years before the DOJ investigated the agency for excessive use of force, false arrests and illegal detentions.
Achieving compliance with a federal consent judgment has taken 11 years. Even then, Detroit has been able to achieve only about 90 percent compliance.
The Justice Department nevertheless agreed this year to lift federal oversight beginning in 2016, but noted that more work is needed in the transition.
Detroit’s independent monitor, a retired New York police chief, still has concerns about police compliance with reforms related to “on-the-scene decisions an officer must make, particularly relating to de-escalation,” court records show.
As to the use of video cameras by officers – considered a key way to guard against and investigate police misconduct – Detroit still isn’t compliant, the monitor’s final report in August stated.
Detroit police officers have made strides over the years in recording encounters with suspects and the public, the monitor concluded.
Although technical problems with equipment have occurred, the “remaining issue” is getting more officers to use the devices, the monitor reported.
Detroit police commander Deshaune Sims told the Journal that officers who do use video and audio devices say it has improved policing in an unexpected way – unruly criminal suspects often straighten up once they know they are being recorded.
“It’s been a whole new dynamic,” Sims added.
The city of New Orleans’ consent decree is expected to last at least five years and cost more than $11 million, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington, D.C.
Albuquerque’s settlement agreement is expected to last four years. The city expects to spend $4 million to $6 million on extra training for officers, monitoring and other expenses associated with carrying out the agreement the first year.
‘A messy business’
In recent years, police conduct in major cities, such as New Orleans and Portland, has been on the DOJ’s radar.
But Warren, Ohio, a town of 42,000 people, hasn’t been exempt.
After several years of investigation, the DOJ found Warren’s police force of 65 officers was engaging in a pattern or practice of excessive force.
The town’s settlement agreement with the Justice Department in 2012 promised more police training, improved policies and oversight, and investigation of citizen complaints.
“It made us a better police department,” said Warren Mayor William D. Franklin last week. “I think most of the hard work is behind us. Use-of-force issues have decreased dramatically.” Citizens’ complaints about police conduct are also down, he said.
In Seattle, O’Toole told the Journal last week that critics feared the new federally mandated reforms would jeopardize the safety of officers in the field.
There was also speculation, she said, “that there could be de-policing in the city, that officers wouldn’t be inclined to arrest people because of administrative processes being cumbersome.”
The data is still being analyzed, O’Toole said, but so far it appears those concerns are unfounded.
She said she hasn’t seen “any glaring instances” of officers being physically harmed.
“We’ve had five officer-involved shootings since I’ve been here, so obviously they’re still using force. Fortunately, it appears they were justified in doing so.”
And, she added, “police are still out there doing their jobs.”
A recent lawsuit by more than 100 Seattle police officers alleged the new regulations “unreasonably restrict and burden” officers’ ability to protect themselves.
Like Albuquerque’s agreement with the DOJ, the Seattle consent decree stresses less-lethal devices such as Taser and pepper spray, and admonishes police to de-escalate confrontations through warnings, verbal persuasion and other tactics.
A federal judge tossed out the Seattle officers’ lawsuit last month. O’Toole said the police union didn’t support the legal challenge and she hopes disgruntled officers will eventually come on board.
“In order to realize true change in organizations, you have to get people to buy in.”
In the East Haven police department of about 50 officers, there was “a lot of turnover (after the consent decree was enacted) and I think that was a real benefit to the organization,” O’Toole said.
In Seattle, with a force of about 1,400, “it certainly hasn’t discouraged people from applying for the job. Lots of people still want to be Seattle police officers.”
In 2012, O’Toole completed a six-year term as Chief Inspector of the Gardia Síochána Inspectorate, an oversight body responsible for bringing reform, best practice and accountability to the 17,000-member Irish national police service.
O’Toole said in her months of implementing reforms under the consent decree, she has found officer feedback valuable.
For example, Seattle police officers reported spending several hours at a time documenting instances in which prisoners complained about handcuffs being too tight.
Police were erring on the side of caution in filling out the reports, but the practice created “an administrative nightmare,” she said.
With approval from Seattle’s federal monitoring team, the policy was revised so, if no injury is visible from the handcuffing, the use-of-force complaint becomes a 10-minute computer entry that’s reviewed by a supervisor, she said.
“Policing is a messy business and there will be shootings,” O’Toole said. “And if officers need to preserve life, and defend themselves and defend others, then shootings will occur. But I believe we have all the systems in place to ensure our officers are well trained in advance of situations like that, and these cases will be thoroughly and properly investigated.”