The Washington Post

New rules governing federal monitors responsibl­e for overseeing police-reform efforts in local jurisdicti­ons were unveiled by the Justice Department.

Justice Dept. seeks to boost confidence in consent decree process

- BY DAVID NAKAMURA david.nakamura@washpost.com

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday unveiled new rules governing federal monitors responsibl­e for overseeing police reforms in local jurisdicti­ons, including setting limits on the watchdogs’ tenure and budgets and requiring them to undergo more training.

Garland announced the changes during an online speech to the Internatio­nal Associatio­n of Chiefs of Police, culminatin­g a four-month Justice Department review aimed at bolstering public confidence in federal efforts to rein in unconstitu­tional and abusive policing.

Since he was appointed to the nation’s top law enforcemen­t job by President Biden this year, Garland — a former federal appeals court judge and Supreme Court nominee — has launched sweeping “pattern or practice” investigat­ions of police department­s in Minneapoli­s, Louisville and Phoenix.

Such probes can result in federal interventi­on, in the form of a court-approved consent decree that sets a detailed reform plan. Local political leaders, police chiefs and law enforcemen­t unions have complained that the plans often stretch on years longer than anticipate­d, harming police morale and frustratin­g community residents.

Monitoring teams — usually composed of former police officials, lawyers, academics and police-reform consultant­s — have typically billed local taxpayers between $1 million and $2 million per year. Some consultant­s have served on federal oversight teams in more than one city at the same time, drawing criticism over conflicts of interest.

“It is also no secret that the monitorshi­ps associated with some of those settlement­s have led to frustratio­ns and concerns within the law enforcemen­t community. We hear you, and we take those concerns seriously,” Garland said.

He emphasized that “monitors must be incentiviz­ed to efficientl­y bring consent decrees to an end. Change takes time, but a consent decree cannot last forever.”

Under the new rules — outlined in a nine-page memo from Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who oversaw the review — monitoring teams would be subject to unspecifie­d term limits set before their hiring, as well as periodic performanc­e reviews by the federal judge in charge of the settlement, who could make changes.

The monitor would be allowed to continue past the negotiated term limits only through a reappointm­ent from the judge, according to the memo.

The monitors would have to meet federal standards before being hired and undergo training once on the job, and they would be restricted from serving as a principal monitor in multiple localities simultaneo­usly.

After five years, the judge would conduct a terminatio­n hearing to determine whether the federal oversight could be lifted or, if not, determine specific ways to help the jurisdicti­on reach full compliance, officials said.

Another rule would allow the Justice Department and the judge to slim down the scope of the consent decrees — which typically mandate that jurisdicti­ons meet hundreds of requiremen­ts before the federal oversight is lifted — to make them less onerous as law enforcemen­t agencies demonstrat­e progress.

That change would hand back greater autonomy to local agencies in some areas, even as the federal monitors continue to ask for improvemen­ts in others.

Justice Department officials said they hope the new rules help jurisdicti­ons feel as though the progress they make has been recognized, which could help keep them motivated.

Law enforcemen­t groups reacted favorably to the changes.

“Pattern or practice investigat­ions are serious business, and if the Justice Department conducts such an investigat­ion and finds areas that require remedy, then it’s critically important that the remedy is effectivel­y administer­ed,” said James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. “Unfortunat­ely, that hasn’t always been the case over the years, in every instance. These changes go a long way in improving the manner in which public safety is enhanced in cities large and small.”

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said his group has lobbied for nearly two decades for the Justice Department to provide greater oversight of federal monitors.

“This memo addresses many, if not all, of the major concerns we have had,” Wexler said. “This will help restore credibilit­y into this process.”

Some of the new requiremen­ts have been tried in existing consent decrees, including in Baltimore. But now they will be mandatory in all new agreements, starting immediatel­y, officials said.

Garland ordered the review of federal monitors in April when he released a memo restoring the agency’s ability to pursue consent decrees, three years after the Trump administra­tion banned the strategy. In 2018, then-attorney General Jeff Sessions said he viewed the interventi­on into local jurisdicti­ons as federal overreach.

Garland’s aides have called consent decrees an important tool to force changes among some of the nation’s most unaccounta­ble law enforcemen­t agencies. But the efforts have achieved mixed results, often moving more slowly than civil rights groups and police-reform advocates have demanded.

The Justice Department spent more than 12 years overseeing police efforts in Los Angeles, 11 in Detroit, nearly a decade in New Jersey and seven years in D.C. and Prince George’s County, Md.

Among ongoing agreements, federal authoritie­s are still monitoring efforts that began in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2009, in Seattle in 2012, in New Orleans and Puerto Rico in 2013 and in Portland, Ore., and Albuquerqu­e in 2014.

Gupta said her team conducted more than 50 meetings with stakeholde­rs, including local political leaders, law enforcemen­t officials, former and current monitors and community members. Her memo emphasized the importance of community input in the consent decree process and instructed monitors to engage with residents, including through the use of town-hallstyle meetings and social media.

Officials said Gupta and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the department’s civil rights division, will convene another meeting with stakeholde­rs within 90 days to begin developing the new training guidelines and assessment tools to help jurisdicti­ons measure progress.

In a statement, Gupta called consent settlement­s “vital tools in upholding the rule of law and promoting transforma­tional change,” and she said the Justice Department “must do everything it can to guarantee that they remain so by working to ensure that the monitors who help implement these decrees do so efficientl­y, consistent­ly and with meaningful input and participat­ion from the communitie­s they serve.”

 ?? SAMUEL CORUM/BLOOMBERG NEWS ?? Attorney General Merrick Garland, shown last week, on Monday addressed the Internatio­nal Associatio­n of Chiefs of Police.
SAMUEL CORUM/BLOOMBERG NEWS Attorney General Merrick Garland, shown last week, on Monday addressed the Internatio­nal Associatio­n of Chiefs of Police.

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