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Before Cleveland, About 30 Police Departments Entered DOJ Agreements


All in all, about 30 police departments have entered into agreements with the Department of Justice. Others include Pittsburgh, Seattle, New Orleans and Los Angeles. That's since 1994 when Congress passed a crime law that gave the Department of Justice authority to investigate state and local police. Chuck Wexler is with the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that's studied many of those cases. He joined us from his office and said there are familiar elements in all of the cases where the Department of Justice has intervened.

CHUCK WEXLER: I think it's important. Look, I think now no police department in the country should be surprised at what the Justice of Department looks for in these cases in terms of use of force, in terms of racial bias, in terms of unlawful stops - all of these things. So departments are really wise to take the necessary steps on their own to make the changes. I hope that people will see what the Department of Justice is doing and use it as an opportunity to deal with issues before having to go through this kind of process. It's a lengthy process. It's a costly process, and, quite frankly, I think departments are better off on their own making these changes rather than being required to.

SIEGEL: I would imagine, though, when an agreement of this sort is announced that there are senior police officers in the department affected who would be very resentful of the federal government coming in. Is that typical or is that a caricature?

WEXLER: Well, it all depends. You know, some departments, for example Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, they may have been initially reticent about what does this mean. After all, you know, you have a Justice Department coming in and telling a department what to do. However, once they get past that initial reticence, they realize that what this does allow departments to do is get some of the changes in terms of equipment, in terms of training, in terms of developing your future leaders that you normally could not get had you not had this consent decree. So I think the successful departments that are able to recognize that, look, it is what it is. We need to change. They will use this, the Department of Justice, to help them get the kind of funding from their city council and government that they normally wouldn't get. So out of this crisis becomes an opportunity to develop a better department, and I think Los Angeles is a good example of that.

SIEGEL: We've had about 30 of these settlements, you say. They can't all be with cities the size of Los Angeles or even Pittsburgh. Are there, you know, very small forces, like the one in Ferguson, Mo., that have been subjected to such agreements?

WEXLER: East Haven, Conn., has undergone this process. Miami has undergone this process and Austin, Texas. In their cases, it was not as extensive as a consent decree. It might have been a memorandum of agreement. One of the things you figure out with working with the Justice Department is if you work expeditiously, if you show examples of how you make it - can make changes, it really makes a difference in terms of the kind of agreement that comes out. Miami is a really good example because there John Timoney came in in the middle of a Department of Justice investigation where they had had a series of a high rate of officer involved shootings - use of deadly force. Timoney came in, he made the changes and they had a 22-month period where there were no officer involved shootings. Timoney leaves the department, another chief comes in and it reverts back and the shootings start to continue. The Department of Justice comes back. So that's the interesting part about all of this is you...

SIEGEL: Well, it raises a question. It raises - is it the Department of Justice or is it having a good police chief?

WEXLER: Well, I would say all of the above. But I'd say if I was going to put my money on anything in this endeavor, I would say leadership. Leadership really matters. So you can have a Department of Justice consent decree, which will simply go on forever. Or you can have a Department of Justice consent decree; you can bring in a really strong leader who embraces it, recognizes it is something important then select someone that follows them that continues to sustain that. That's what happened in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a different place today because of the consent decree, but also, and as importantly, if not more, because of leadership.

SIEGEL: Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, thanks a lot for talking with us.

WEXLER: Thanks, Robert - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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