Resource: Structural Police Reform

By: Stephen Rushin

January 1, 2015


For most of American history, courts and policymakers have relied on a small handful of relatively non-invasive tools to fight police misconduct. These traditional approaches to police regulation merely incentivized, but did not force, police departments to adopt costly reforms aimed at curbing unconstitutional behavior. In 1994, Congress passed 42 U.S.C. §14141, a statute authorizing the Attorney General to initiate structural reform litigation against local police agencies engaged in a pattern or practice of misconduct. Although some of the nation’s largest cities have now undergone this sort of structural police reform, there has been little empirical legal research on the topic. This article fills this gap in the literature by using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to describe and evaluate the structural police reform process.

Using the Los Angeles Police Department as a case study, this article shows how structural police reform can transform local police agencies with few negative externalities. Structural police reform provides chiefs with legal cover to implement wide-ranging policy and procedural reforms aimed at curbing misconduct. It forces local governments to allocate scarce municipal resources to the cause of police reform. And it utilizes external monitoring to ensure that frontline officers substantively, rather than symbolically, comply with top-down mandates. In doing so, structural police reform is capable of addressing the deeply ingrained, organizational roots of police wrongdoing. This makes structural police reform the most effective legal mechanism available to fight police misconduct.

But structural police reform is far from perfect. The process is long and expensive. As a result, the federal government only has the resources to initiate a small number of cases each year. This means that structural police reform will never be the primary mechanism for combatting police misconduct. The success of structural police reform, though, provides several valuable insights that should inform future legal regulations of law enforcement.