Resource: Turning Necessity Into Virtue: Pittsburgh’s Experience with a Federal Consent Decree

By: Robert C. Davis, Christopher W. Ortiz, Nicole J. Henderson, Joel Miller, & Michelle K. Massie

September 1, 2002


Increasingly, federal courts are scrutinizing state and local police departments, particularly since 1994, when Congress gave the Justice Department power to sue over a “pattern or practice” of policing that violates federal law or the Constitution. The Justice Department brought its first case in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, entering a consent decree with the city government in 1997. Today, with federal courts monitoring half a dozen departments (four as the result of DOJ involvement), the department’s new “pattern or practice” authority is increasingly controversial. Yet, among both police officials and civil rights groups, the Pittsburgh consent decree is generally viewed as a success in terms of increasing police accountability and improving officer training. This report examines the five-year experience of the police and citizens of Pittsburgh with this decree, drawing lessons for other cities.