After a decade of policing crises that began with the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and culminated in the Rampart police corruption scandal in 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in May 2000 that it had accumulated enough evidence to sue the City of Los Angeles over a pattern-and-practice of police misconduct: excessive force, false arrests and unreasonable searches, especially of members of minorities. Later that year, the city government entered a “consent decree” promising to adopt scores of reform measures under the supervision of a federal court.
That court imposed monitoring is set to expire today, and the New York Times is reporting on arguments by various interested parties about whether that monitoring should be continued: "Monitor Cites Reform, Though Incomplete, by Los Angeles Police." The changes that have occurred over the time of the consent decree contain very important lessons about the quality of policing. Click Here to read more.
Views on possible police misconduct usually fall into two camps: some argue for a "tighter rein" on police conduct, increased accountability and reform to address misconduct and abuses; others charactorize critics as "anti-police" and argue that citizens shouldn't question police tactics, allowing them to do whatever is necessary to keep us safe.
What is so important about the recent example of the LAPD under the consent decree is that it disproves this false dichotomy. A comprehensive study by the Kennedy School of Government found that better management and governance, improved supervision, increased training, and enhanced protocols could lead to improvements in community police relations and improved policing [thanks to Kate Krontiris for highlighting this study at Rethinking Reentry].
From the Executive Summary:
"Despite the views of some officers that the consent decree inhibits them, there is no objective sign of so-called “de-policing” since 2002; indeed, quantity and quality of enforcement activity have risen substantially over [this] period. The greater quantity is evident in the doubling of both pedestrian stops and motor vehicle stops since 2002, and in the rise in arrests over that same period. The greater quality of stops is evident in the higher proportion resulting in an arrest, and the quality of arrests is evident in the higher proportion in which the District Attorney files felony charges. . . .
In sum, the evidence here shows that with both strong police leadership and strong police oversight, cities can enjoy both respectful and effective policing. The LAPD remains aggressive and is again proud, but community engagement and partnership is now part of the mainstream culture of the Department. The Department responds to crime and disorder with substantial force, but it is scrutinizing that force closely and it is accountable through many devices for its proper use."
[Incidentally, the LAPD also has the best web-based tool for mapping crime trends that I've seen. By combining real-time data on eight major crimes with Google Maps, the LAPD lets citizens see what's going on in their neighborhoods.]
Another city operating it's police department under a consent decree over about the same period of time is Cincinatti, Ohio. This week's New Yorker has a article on efforts there to implement the "Ceasefire" strategy with help from John Jay professor David Kennedy. Here's a link to that article (subscription req'd).