In September 2000, Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan and Los Angeles police chief Bernard Parks phoned Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. They requested that he call off the Justice Department’s pursuit of a federal consent decree against the Los Angeles Police Department.
The Justice Department had been nosing around the LAPD for several years under a 1994 federal law that allows the DOJ to sue police agencies for a “pattern or practice” of violating civil rights. But after the LAPD’s 1998 Rampart corruption scandal, in which a handful of antigang cops extorted, framed, beat, and in one case shot, drug dealers, DOJ cranked up the heat. Its investigators demanded truckloads of documents—in the process losing ten boxes of sensitive records. Yet despite putting the LAPD through countless hours of answering questions and copying records, the federal investigators found no evidence that the Rampart gang officers’ corruption went beyond their particular police division or represented anything other than a highly localized breakdown of supervision. The Rampart abuses did not, in other words, represent a “pattern or practice” of civil-rights violations by the LAPD.
Chief Parks had already reacted to the scandal with draconian measures. He had disbanded all the antigang units across the city and then reconstituted them with such meager powers as to ensure that they could not do their jobs. The LAPD became consumed with the Rampart case; it hardly needed federal oversight to ensure that it was taking the problem seriously. But Bill Lann Lee, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, insisted that the LAPD be put under a federal monitor who would dictate nearly every aspect of policing practice and policy for a minimum of five years. Lee presented the city with a massive consent decree that would bind the LAPD to the DOJ’s supervision—and if the city refused to sign, DOJ would take Los Angeles to court. Included in the proposed decree’s 180 provisions were mandates to record the race of every suspect whom officers stopped, though the Rampart scandal had had nothing to do with so-called “racial profiling.”
In their September 2000 call to Deputy Attorney General Holder, Mayor Riordan and Chief Parks stressed that the city was already doing everything possible to prevent a reoccurrence of the abuses and that a federal monitor would only impede the department’s ability to operate and pursue existing reforms. Holder was unmoved. DOJ would either see Los Angeles in court or impose a consent decree on it, he wrote back. The federal juggernaut was unstoppable. In 2001, the LAPD signed the decree, starting a process of debilitating resource-drain and wholly useless bureaucratic paper-pushing. Holder had played a significant role in “negotiating” the decree, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Complying with the federal straitjacket cost the always cash-starved LAPD $40 million in its first year and $50 million each year thereafter, according to city estimates. The court-appointed federal monitor, who has still not stepped down, pursues the dozens of paperwork-gathering requirements with relentless, preposterous exactitude, deeming the LAPD out of compliance if a manager misses an arbitrary report-filing deadline by a few days. The department yanked 350 officers from crime-fighting duties to tend to the care and feeding of the consent decree, which presumes that all supervisors and officers operate on the precipice of racism and corruption and need to be stripped of vital discretion in doing their jobs.
The LAPD consent decree wasn’t the only unnecessary interference with policing that the Justice Department engaged in during the Clinton years, both before and after Eric Holder became second-in-command in 1997. A knock on the door from a truckload of DOJ lawyers, none of whom knew a thing about policing and who would spend years demanding documents, remained a constant threat. Not every investigation resulted in a consent decree, but each one imposed significant costs with little return. Columbus, Ohio, Washington, DC, and the New Jersey State Police, among other departments, felt the heat.
The late 1990s also saw the rise of the bogus “racial profiling” concept, in which police departments were deemed racist if their stop and arrest rates didn’t match population benchmarks. That primitive analytical framework, initially promoted by the ACLU, ignores the wildly disparate racial crime rates and the inevitable effect of those crime rates on police activity. The Justice Department under Deputy Attorney General Holder gave a significant push to its evolution, and the momentum of DOJ-sponsored “racial profiling” conferences and DOJ-funded research continued through the early years of the Bush administration.
“Pattern or practice” police litigation did drop significantly under the Bush administration, though to its discredit Bush’s DOJ did not try to dismantle the existing consent decrees. Some criminologists are already calling for the Obama administration to revive Clinton-era tactics. This Thursday, during attorney general–designate Holder’s confirmation hearings, senators should ask him on what grounds he would inflict his civil-rights attorneys on police departments. They should also inquire whether he believes that a racially disparate stop rate provides prima facie evidence of police racism.
As the economic recession deepens, the last thing cash-strapped police departments and municipalities need is more expensive federal consent decrees. Siccing clueless federal attorneys on big-city police departments will only hamper their ability to fight crime and hasten urban decline.