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The Cost of Not Knowing

Megan McDonough  | 23 September 2019  |  4 minute read


If your police department were put under a microscope and its policies and policing practices were closely scrutinized by a skilled team of investigators, how would it fare? When considering this question, are you basing your answer on rigorous data or just a gut feeling? If you fall into the latter group, relying more on a general sense of how things are going with your agency than on internal statistics, you may want to think about the potential consequences–and price tag–associated with uncertainty.

Consider that in the 25 years since the passage of 42 U.S.C. § 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, 69 police departments have been subjected to formal investigations conducted by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ)1.

These investigations give the Attorney General tools to address…

…a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers or by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States2.

These investigations have often focused on topics such as use of force, stops, searches, and arrests, and interactions with people in mental health crisis. Following these inquiries, more than 40 agencies have entered into formal reform agreements with the federal government in the form of consent decrees or negotiated settlement agreements.

Consent decrees are typically overseen by a federal court and an independent monitoring team, which can come at a cost to the city or department in excess of $1 million per year3.

These agreements remain in place for an average of more than seven years, until the department can demonstrate to the court and monitor that they have made and sustained the necessary changes.

Federal monitorship can be incredibly burdensome. In addition to the financial implications, addressing the requirements in the agreement can mean diverting personnel and resources away from other areas that they were intended for, and the immediate loss of some departmental autonomy during day-to-day operations.

This is not in any way intended to suggest that there is not value in the work accomplished by consent decrees; research has indicated that reform agreements can bring about lasting and meaningful change in departments with serious and systemic challenges4.

By the time many of the departments were found to have patterns and practices of unconstitutional behavior, they likely needed the additional muscle that comes with DOJ requirements to be able to push necessary changes and reforms through internally.

But what if departments were able to routinely keep tabs on how they were doing? To flag potential disparities in proactive stops? And to decipher trends in uses of force on subjects in mental crisis? If departments could identify their descent down a problematic path early on and by using their own data, perhaps they could self-correct, and independently address deficiencies through training, policy, and culture. In doing so, not only can departments potentially avoid the burden and price tag of federal intervention, but they can also provide better service to their officers and most importantly, their communities.

Recently, the Crime and Justice Institute published a report detailing “how police departments can drive positive change without federal intervention”; it includes a prescriptive checklist for law enforcement executives to self-assess if they are internally tracking on the areas most often addressed in consent decrees, particularly from a policy and data collection perspective5.

Importantly, the data points they highlight are ones that–if departments are not already collecting–they may find themselves mandated to start collecting as part of a consent decree requirement. Better to take the initiative and do it on your own terms, no?

Mark43’s comprehensive RMS-CAD and Analytics can be a great first step in ensuring that your department is collecting and analyzing the critical information necessary to determine whether your department needs to proactively alter some or many of its patterns and practices. Through our cloud-native records and analytics suite, your data is readily accessible, and trends in areas such as stops and searches, uses of force, and behavioral crises can be consumed and assessed in the form of data tables, graphics, or the original officer-written reports.

While the pace of federal pattern and practice investigations has slowed in the last two years, state and local governments have begun to step in to see that reform work does not cease (e.g. State of Illinois v. City of Chicago). The prevalence of federal investigations could also change abruptly, should a new presidential administration take office in January 2021. Further, regardless of the risks of DOJ intervention, the department owes to its constituents a consistent, reliable, and high-quality level of service. Collecting and routinely analyzing data across the wide array of interactions between your officers and the citizens they serve can help to reconcile your gut feeling about your department and your data.


1 The Civil Rights Division’s Pattern and Practice Police Reform Work: 1994-Present (2017). U.S. Department of Justice;

2 § 14141. Cause of action (re-codified at 34 U.S.C. 12601)

3 Stroud, M., and M. Rojanasakul. 27 May 2015.  ‘A Pattern or Practice’ of Violence in America, Bloomberg.

4 Davis, R.C., N.J. Henderson, C.W. Ortiz. (2005). Can federal intervention bring lasting improvement in local policing? Vera Institute of Justice.; Stone, C., T. Foglesong, and C.M. Cole. (2009). Policing Los Angeles under a consent decree: The dynamics of change at the LAPD.

5 Lawrence, S., and C.M. Cole. (2019). Building Capacity: How Police Departments Can Drive Positive Change Without Federal Intervention. Crime and Justice Institute.

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