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Friday, August 22, 2014

Would “Pattern or Practice” Litigation Work in Ferguson?

The following guest post is by Stephen Rushin, a VAP at Illinois.

Earlier this week, Howard wrote an interesting post about the possibility of DOJ intervention into the Ferguson Police Department under 42 U.S.C. § 14141. This statute gives the Attorney General authority to initiate structural reform litigation against local police agencies engaged in a “pattern or practice” of misconduct.

This post raised some important questions. How might the DOJ use § 14141 to reform the Ferguson Police Department? And would it work? Over the last two years, I've been empirically studying the DOJ’s use of § 14141 litigation in American police departments as part of my doctoral dissertation. I am in the process of converting this dissertation into a book (in contract with the Cambridge University Press) that argues that § 14141 is the most effective legal mechanism available to combat police misconduct. So it is safe to say that I am a strong proponent of § 14141 litigation. But this regulatory mechanism is not without its limitations. After the jump, I’ll breakdown what we know about § 14141, and I’ll describe how this sort of structural reform litigation could work in Ferguson. 

Let me start with a little background. Since Congress passed § 14141 in 1994, the DOJ has used the measure to reform police departments in cities all across the country, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Albuquerque, Seattle, Detroit. One of my earlier articles documents all of the formal DOJ action under § 14141. Below is a map showing all DOJ action under this statute (this doesn’t include DOJ action in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands). That same article also describes trends in DOJ enforcement of § 14141 over time.

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In practice the DOJ has settled virtually all § 14141 cases through largely extrajudicial negotiations. One notable exception is the recent litigation in Alamance County, North Carolina. In a forthcoming article, I draw on original interviews to describe and evaluate this largely “off-the-books” process and theorize on its effectiveness. Scholars like Mary Fan (UW Seattle) have argued that this sort of bargaining of constitutional reforms in the shadow of the law “may yield smarter and farther reaching reforms.” And as Howard alluded to in his earlier post, Rachel Harmon and Kami Chavis Simmons have made valuable contributions in this field by describing how the federal government could use § 14141 to bring about more widespread and effective change in local police departments.  

Studies in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati have suggested that § 14141 litigation can help police departments reduce misconduct. In my research, I argue that federal intervention via § 14141 helps reduce misconduct in several ways. For one thing, it forces municipalities to prioritize investment in police reform. Preventing unconstitutional misconduct is expensive. Take New Orleans as an example. There, estimates place the annual cost of the consent decrees facing the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Prison at around $18 to $33.5 million. In confronting such an immediate financial burden, communities are left with two options: reallocate scarce municipal resources to the cause of police reform, or generate more revenue through higher taxes. While this might seem troubling, interview participants in my study suggest that municipalities can recoup some of this cost through future reductions in civil suits for officer misconduct. As one city official in Detroit told me, “the amount of money that we have saved on lawsuits that we had endured for years … have paid for the cost of implementation of the monitoring two or three times” over.

Federal intervention via § 14141 also commonly spurs municipalities to bring in outside, reform-minded leadership to their police department. Federal intervention arms these local police leaders with legal cover to implement potentially unpopular, but necessary reforms. And it utilizes external monitoring to ensure that frontline officers substantively comply with top-down mandates.

That is the good news. But this regulatory method is far from perfect. For one thing, virtually all interview participants that took part in my study acknowledged that § 14141 litigation is most effective when the local police and political leadership are supportive of the reform. In 2010, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Perez announced that the Civil Rights Division was again “open for business” and would aggressively use its authority under § 14141 to reform local police departments. Even so, real questions remain about whether the DOJ can effectively use § 14141 to force reform in a municipality that defiantly and obstinately opposes federal intervention.  

There are also serious questions about the sustainability of reforms achieved via § 14141. For example, in Pittsburgh, Police Chief Robert McNeilly oversaw the city’s Bureau of Police throughout the implementation of § 14141 reforms. During his process, McNeilly was an ardent supporter of federal intervention, despite fierce backlash from his own officers. After federal oversight ended, though, the newly elected Pittsburgh mayor removed McNeilly from his post. Since then, the Bureau “is now sliding back towards where it was” before federal intervention. One of McNeilly’s successors, Chief Nathan Harper, is currently serving an 18-month prison sentence on corruption-related charges. And the current Pittsburgh mayor recently acknowledged that the Bureau had regressed so much that it may be “on the verge of another consent decree.”

All of this is to say that § 14141 is not a silver bullet. If a full DOJ investigation finds evidence of a pattern or practice of police misconduct in Ferguson, the use of § 14141 may help facilitate organizational change. At the end of the day, though, long-lasting reform in the Ferguson police department will require more than § 14141. It will require dedication by local politicians, supportive leadership in the police department, and organizational buy-in by frontline officers.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 22, 2014 at 10:00 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Law and Politics | Permalink

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