University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
Title "The Civil Rights Division’s Pattern and Practice Police Reform Work: 1994-Present"
Date Jan 4, 2017
Author U.S. Department of Justice
External Link
Abstract This report describes one of the United States Department of Justice’s central tools for accomplishing police reform, restoring police-community trust, and strengthening officer and public safety – the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of the civil prohibition on a “pattern or practice” of policing that violates the Constitution or other federal laws (the Department’s other tools are described later in this document).

Pattern-or-practice cases begin with investigations of allegations of systemic police misconduct and, when the allegations are substantiated, end with comprehensive agreements designed to support constitutional and effective policing and restore trust between police and communities. The Division has opened 11 new pattern-or-practice investigations and negotiated 19 new reform agreements since 2012 alone, often with the substantial assistance of the local United States Attorney’s Offices.

The purpose of this report to make the Division’s police reform work more accessible and transparent. The usual course of a pattern-or-practice case, with examples and explanations for why the Division approaches this work the way it does, is set forth in this report. The following is a brief summary of its major themes:
  • The Division’s pattern-or-practice cases focus on systemic police misconduct rather than isolated instances of wrongdoing. They also focus on the responsibilities of law enforcement agencies and local governments rather than on individual officers.

  • The Division’s pattern-or-practice cases begin with the launch of a formal investigation into a law enforcement agency to determine whether the agency is engaged in a pattern or practice of violating federal law. An investigation most often consists of a comprehensive analysis of the policies and practices of policing in a particular community, although an investigation may also focus on a specific area of policing practice.

  • If the Division finds a pattern or practice of police misconduct, it issues public findings in the form of a letter or report made available to the local jurisdiction and the public. The Division conducts a thorough and independent investigation into allegations of police misconduct and substantiates any conclusions it draws with evidence set forth in its public findings.

  • After making findings, the Division negotiates reform agreements resolving those findings, usually in the form of a “consent decree” overseen by a federal court and an independent monitoring team. The lead independent monitor is appointed by the court, and usually agreed upon by both the Division and the investigated party, but reports directly to the court. If an agreement cannot be negotiated, the Division will bring a lawsuit to compel needed reforms.

  • When the court finds that the law enforcement agency has accomplished and sustained the requirements of the reform agreement, the case is terminated. In recent years, the Division’s reform agreements have included data-driven outcome measures designed to provide clear and objective standards for measuring success and determining whether the law enforcement agency has met the objectives of the agreement.

  • At all stages of a pattern-or-practice case, from investigation through resolution, the Division emphasizes engagement with a wide variety of stakeholders, including community members and people who have been victims of police misconduct or live in the neighborhoods most impacted by police misconduct, police leadership, rank and file officers, police labor organizations, and local political leaders. Each of these groups brings a different and important perspective and plays a critical role in accomplishing and sustaining police reform.

  • In keeping with the focus on systemic problems, the Division’s reform agreements emphasize institutional reforms such as improving systems for supervising officers and holding them accountable for misconduct; ensuring officers have the policy guidance, training, equipment and other resources necessary for constitutional and effective policing; creating and using data about police activity to identify and correct patterns of police misconduct; and institutionalizing law enforcement agencies’ engagement with and accountability to the community.

The sections that follow provide background on why Congress gave the Division authority to address systemic police misconduct, how the Division opens pattern-or-practice investigations, what an investigation involves, and how the Division negotiates reform agreements. The report then outlines the common threads among the Division’s current generation of police reform agreements, explaining how the Division’s model promotes sustainable reform and constitutional, effective policing, as well as how those agreements come to a close. Finally, the report discusses the evidence to date of the impact of the Division’s pattern-or-practice work on police reform, as well as future directions for research and reflection on that impact.

This Resource Relates To
case cause34 U.S.C. § 12601 (previously 42 U.S.C. § 14141)

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