Not long ago, advocates for overhauling policing in Albuquerque, N.M., saw the Justice Department as their salvation. "I never thought I'd see this day," said Steve Torres when then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a historic consent decree with the city in 2014.
Albuquerque police had killed Torres's son, who suffered from schizophrenia, by shooting him three times in the back — one of 41 police shootings over a few years in the Southwest city that is home to over a half-million residents. "Now we have to make sure they follow through," said Torres.
Nine years and $25 million later, the consent decree is still active, and some say they've lost faith that the process will lead to meaningful change, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Last year, Albuquerque police shot a record-high 18 people.
On Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the results of a "pattern or practice" investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, prompted by the 2020 killing of George Floyd. Elected city leaders, many of whom campaigned on promises to rein in policing, lauded the findings, vowing to negotiate a consent decree that will serve as a roadmap to a new era.
A consent decree is one of the federal government's most aggressive tools for intervening in police departments it finds to be systemically violating the U.S. Constitution. With authority from Congress in response to the 1991 Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King, these settlement agreements are enforceable by the courts and overseen by a monitor.
Over the past three decades, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has negotiated consent decrees that have proved to be effective in addressing systemic misconduct, according to experts who study them. Success can come with caveats. The process can take a decade or longer — Oakland is in year 20 — and cost tens of millions of dollars to taxpayers.
Sometimes the changes don't stick. Critics of agreements in places such as Albuquerque say their experiences serve as a cautionary tale as Minneapolis embarks on the same path they once embraced with optimism.
"The community feels like the exercise has been checking off boxes to comply, but without seeing any real results or change in culture," said New Mexico civil rights attorney Laura Schauer Ives. "It's not a panacea."
Garland said his department and city leaders have agreed in principle to begin negotiating a consent decree to resolve the Minneapolis charges, a laborious legal process that could take months or a year. Based on how these have played out in other cities, the agreement is expected to include mandates on new technology, such as an early-intervention system that flags problem officers.
It likely will entail reforms centering on police use of force, traffic stops and the system for citizen complaints. Also on the table, could be an attempt to create a "problem-oriented" crime fighting strategy reliant on data and collaboration with the communities the police department is tasked with keeping safe.
A successful negotiation process will rely heavily on seeking input from the public, said Samuel Walker, a policing expert and retired professor at the University of Nebraska's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.