Efforts to help local police departments improve community relations and avoid misconduct are being abandoned by the Department of Justice, raising concerns about whether police agencies with troubling histories will be reformed. ProPublica reports on the implications for the troubled Elkhart, Indiana, Police Department of the Justice Department's retreat from using court-ordered consent decrees to assist local law enforcement agencies.
In 1994, Congress authorized the Justice Department to overhaul troubled local police departments using consent decrees — long-term reform plans negotiated by federal and local officials and supervised and enforced by a federal judge.
Consent decrees provided a critical tool for addressing police misconduct charges. The Obama administration entered into a consent decree with Cleveland after an officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. A 2018 report on the city's ongoing reforms showed a nearly 40 percent decrease in officers' use of force from the previous year, ProPublica reports.
Ferguson, Missouri, approved a consent decree two years after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown; the federal judge overseeing the agreement said this year that there has been "a great deal of progress." In Seattle, a 2012 consent decree has been heralded as a success for reducing unnecessary uses of force and improving trust between the community and police.
Just before he left office, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum that makes it more difficult for DOJ to enter into consent decrees with state and city governments, mandating closer control by the department's most senior political appointees, requiring expiration dates for consent decrees, and limiting what the department can require of state and local agencies.
Observers told ProPublica the memo is likely to have a chilling effect on the enforcement of existing consent decrees. Fourteen cities currently have consent decrees.
Elkhart, Indiana, wants to join that list. The city's police department has a long history of abuses — a study in the 1990s described its "reputation for brutality" and failure to remove officers who had "abused citizens, violated civil rights, [and] alienated segments of the community."
Indeed, ProPublica found that nearly all of its supervisors (28 out of 34) have disciplinary records.
One is the mayor’s son, a sergeant once reprimanded for firing 13 times at a dog, with at least two bullets striking a house. Fifteen of the supervisors have been suspended, including the chief, assistant chief and patrol captain. Three were convicted of criminal charges during their careers.
ProPublica also reported that, from 2013 to 1027, Elkhart police officers fatally shot six people — a shocking number for a city of 50,000 people. (In the same period, the New York Police Department fatally shot 43 people, or about seven times the shootings in a city with more than 160 times the population.)
In November, a video was released that showed two Elkhart officers repeatedly punching a handcuffed man in the face in the police station's detention area. The police chief did not tell the civilian oversight commission about the punches and said he decided to merely reprimand the officers because they had clean records; but one of them had six suspensions and two reprimands in his first five years.
The chief was placed on unpaid leave for 30 days, leaving assistant chief Todd Thayer in command. ProPublica found that "his disciplinary record includes a five-day suspension, seven reprimands and a two-step demotion, for making flippant comments about a fatal shooting."
After watching the video, Elkhart mayor Tim Neese asked the Indiana State Police to investigate his police department, but they refused, so he asked the Justice Department for assistance. Mr. Sessions's departing policy change makes it unlikely that Elkhart will get the assistance from DOJ that it so desperately needs.