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What police reform could look like under Donald Trump

Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general has criticized the aggressive policies used by the Obama administration. But other forms of police reform will remain and could be helpful, experts say.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Sen. Jeff Sessions, (R) of Alabama, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be attorney general, shown at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 4, 2017.

As President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration nears, he is training his crosshairs on various hallmarks of President Obama’s legacy.

His intentions for the Affordable Care Act and the Clean Power Plan are clear – repeal them. It remains to be seen, though, how Mr. Trump will diverge from Mr. Obama when it comes to issues of policing and police accountability.

During years of heightened public scrutiny of police officers and their use of lethal force, particularly against African-American men, the Obama administration – particularly the United States Justice Department – has aggressively investigated police departments for civil rights violations. In cities from Ferguson, Mo., to Cleveland to Baltimore, they have imposed changes through an expensive, court-ordered mechanism called a consent decree.

Trump, meanwhile, has nominated a vocal critic of these tactics – Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama – to be attorney general and head of the Justice Department. An early hint of how his administration could approach policing issues will come next week, when Senator Sessions begins his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Minority groups including the NAACP, which this week held a sit-in to protest Sessions’s nomination, question whether civil rights violations and unfair treatment of African-Americans and Latinos in the justice system will receive adequate attention under a Trump administration.

But while the new administration may not be as aggressive in investigating police departments, experts say, it is unlikely to abandon policing reform altogether. While there are questions about whether anything short of bringing the hammer down can fix the most egregious examples, policing experts say that a less adversarial approach might be beneficial for departments trying to improve their approach to policing their communities.

“President-elect Trump and Senator Sessions support policing, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” says Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation. “But what does that mean?”

“Something this administration could do if it wanted is help the country get clearer on what the purpose of policing is in this country,” he adds, “and that would be tremendous gift.”

Because the process is controlled by a judge, the roughly 20 consent decrees around the country will remain in place, whether the Trump administration supports them or not. And while experts believe there will be a drop-off in consent decrees during his presidency – that responsibility could devolve to state governments – they hope a Trump Justice Department may take other actions that can help improve policing.

These could include expanding the use of collaborative reform agreements, giving departments more resources and funding, and researching the effectiveness of federal police oversight overall (where little work has been done to date).

“Underpolicing doesn’t help, overpolicing can cause problems, so you’ve got to find the right balance,” says Mr. Bueermann.

Needed tool or 'exercise of raw power'?

The Obama administration Justice Department has opened about as many civil rights investigations into police departments as the George W. Bush administration did, but while the Bush DOJ often closed investigations with informal agreements with police forces, the Obama DOJ has more frequently opted for the more punitive consent decree.

Consent decrees are legal contracts agreed between a police department, its local government, and the DOJ after the agency has found evidence of civil rights violations. Enforced by a judge, the department has to satisfy hundreds of specific conditions detailed in the decree, with the local government paying for all the new measures until the conditions are met.

Sessions has been a vocal critic of current Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and has in the past also voiced opposition to consent decrees, writing in a 2008 report that they are “exercises of raw power” and “constitute an end run around the democratic process.”

Several police departments that have been involved in controversial police shootings in recent years have entered into consent decrees, including Ferguson, Mo.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Cleveland, while departments in Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Washington, have also gone through the process.

Mixed record of success

Whether they are successful or not has been “kind of a mixed bag,” according to Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

“In some cases they’re probably appropriate,” he adds, but “I think a lot of people in policing would like to see fewer consent decrees and more opportunity to work through those issues. They’re not unwilling to be held accountable, just not with the court monitoring system.”

One example is Seattle, he says, a department that was “not out of control [and] had good leadership.” The department entered into a consent decree in 2012, but has seen a steep drop-off in the enforcement of lower-level offenses and a fierce push-back from rank-and-file officers.

“If there were things that needed to be corrected I think there were probably ways that could have been done without being forced into a consent decree,” adds Mr. Stephens.

The Obama administration has engaged in these more collaborative approaches too, particularly through the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, with the office conducting specialized reviews of departments and helping pay or for some of the solutions.

Cities like Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have requested that the DOJ carry out these kinds of investigations. It could be an approach that Trump has already signaled an interest in, tweeting earlier this week that Chicago, which had its highest murder rate in 20 years, “must ask for federal help” if local officials can’t get a grip on it.

The issue with collaborative reform is, of course, that all parties have to be willing to collaborate. This isn’t always the case, and it’s in these cases that experts say consent decrees become useful.

And there have been some success stories, like Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh – the latter of which had a consent decree meant to last five years but concluded after only two. For many cities, however, the combination of a decade of federal oversight and tens of millions of dollars spent on compliance can feel like a heavy price to pay, even for much-needed reform.

The Oakland police department remains under a consent decree that began in 2003, and has spent over $13 million attempting to comply with the decree, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last summer.

The five-year consent decree the New Orleans Police Department began in 2012 is projected to cost the city $55 million over five years, according to Ronal Serpas, who was superintendent of the department from 2010 to 2014. While he thinks the department is making great headway, there is still a long way to go.

“I think that the $55 million figure is a floor, not a ceiling, of the eventual cost to the City of New Orleans,” he says.

Public demand for reform

“Everyone wants constitutional policing, including the police,” he adds. “How do we get there in way that’s fair to everyone involved?”

Because while most experts agree that consent decrees will become a rarer sight over the next four years, they also agree that public demand for policing reforms won’t.

“Technology is changing such that police misconduct can be more visible than it was before,” says Dr. Serpas, who is now a professor with the Loyola University New Orleans Criminal Justice Department.

“People should be able to expect, with no effort on their part, to have a democratic police service,” he adds, “and in recent years more and more community members have said we’re going to demand that.”

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