It’s All About the Data: Reflections on Managing Consent Decrees

As political leadership shifts with each election cycle, law enforcement agencies are often on the front lines of implementing the policing policy priorities of new administrations and congressional leadership. Among these policy changes, Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decrees are generally agreed to have the most far-reaching impacts on an agency’s day-to-day operations, compelling the cooperation of departmental leaders to deploy often drastic changes to operational policies and those dealing with data collection and reporting. That need to overhaul data collection and reporting can be the source of the kinds of implementation and paperwork nightmares that keep chiefs up at night.

The success of a consent decree, in large part, hinges on how policy changes are implemented, documented, and reported. While they have little input on the consent decree terms, chiefs and departmental leaders are in the driver’s seat when it comes to fulfilling the terms of the decree and those of the monitor.

Over the next several articles, we’ll be exploring the lifecycle of a consent decree by incorporating conversations with prominent chiefs and law enforcement thought leaders who spoke at Benchmark’s Digital Science Leadership Series held at IACP 2022 in Dallas. Their real-world experience and thoughts on consent decrees form the bedrock of this series.

Consent Decree Beginnings

While the nuts and bolts of DOJ consent decrees vary from agency to agency, they all share a similar origin story. Initially, there is an incident or pattern of incidents that draws scrutiny from the media and the wider public. In the past, this could take months to develop into an issue of national attention, but in the age of 24-hour news and social media, a particularly striking example of alleged misconduct can be reported around the world before the day is over. Without a doubt, the perception of policing as a local issue is changing due to technological advances.

Once an agency is on the radar of the DOJ, federal officials investigate to determine if there is a pattern of practice involving misconduct or the deprivation of constitutional rights. In political eras where the DOJ is issuing consent decrees, they tend to move relatively quickly, relative to the level of bureaucracy involved. Using the contemporary example (late 2022) of the Louisville Metro Police Department, the trigger incident occurred less than two years prior to the expected announcement of a DOJ consent decree. Once a department is under a consent decree, daily operations shift and management duties change drastically.

“I don’t wish a consent decree on any police chief or on any police department. It is an enormous undertaking unlike anything I have ever experienced in my career,” said Chief Jason Armstrong – currently chief of Apex (NC) Police Department and whose prior experience includes managing the Ferguson (MO) Police Department’s consent decree. “I had real-life problems in the community that needed our focus, but so much of my time and energy had to be pulled away to work on the consent decree,” he shared during Benchmark’s Leadership Series panel discussion at IACP 2022.

Policing Versus Paperwork

A common observation of consent decrees, especially those that fail to reach a timely conclusion such as at Oakland, California is that the requirements imposed by the DOJ aren’t aligned closely enough with the broader goals of reducing crime, improving public safety, and contributing to positive community relations. This can create tension within a department and can be a source of stress for chiefs and other departmental leaders attempting to balance their day-to-day duties and larger mission with achieving the performance criteria associated with the consent decree.

Speaking at Benchmark’s IACP2022 Digital Science Leadership Series, Virginia Gleason, former deputy director of the Oakland Police Department and 2022 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow, noted the potential for disconnect between a department’s operations and the stipulations of a consent decree.

“There needs to be meaningful interaction between the monitoring team, the court, and the department about what is feasible, what is affordable, and what is practical for that jurisdiction to achieve the principles of [the consent decree] instead of chasing numbers.”

Chiefs are under extraordinary pressure to ‘hit the numbers’ of a consent decree – in many cases, their job depends on it. Collecting, collating, and reporting data types that haven’t been dealt with before significantly strains an unprepared department. Without carefully considering data analysis needs, this can disrupt the balance between administrative tasks and actual, patrol-oriented police work.

Rethinking Data

Data reporting, especially when there can be a perception of moving the goalposts, is more than just an annoyance in a department – it can take a severe toll on morale and retention, contributing to the staffing crisis experienced by agencies around the country. To help mitigate the effects of enhanced data collection and analysis, chiefs and agency leaders must be intentional in their methodology and policies.

Breaking down complex and multifaceted compliance tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces produced results for Ben Horwitz, Co-Founder of AH Datalytics and speaker at Benchmark’s 2022 Digital Science Leadership Series.

“You have to start by measuring something with body worn camera compliance” Horwitz said, speaking of his time managing the New Orleans Police Department’s consent decree. Step one was ‘do we turn it on when we’re supposed to?’. Within three months of command staff seeing the performance [and acting on that data], we went from 70-80% compliance to 95% and above”.

The path towards compliance in this instance involved not just breaking down reporting into more manageable steps but reporting that data up the chain of command to enable more impactful decision-making. Because that data was intentionally managed, it became more valuable as it was used for both compliance and leadership’s decision-making within the department.

Next Steps

Consent decrees are an arduous process that taxes an agency’s capacities and resources in many ways. They are expensive, time-consuming, and, without clear goals and effective management, a drain on a department’s morale that can have measurable impacts on its ability to improve public safety. While some of the processes are outside of the departmental leadership’s hands, they are anything but powerless.

Understanding the intersection of leadership and data analytics is a powerful tool when navigating the ins and outs of a consent decree. Benchmark Analytics is committed to both contributing to the conversation surrounding these core elements and building the best data analytics tools – tools that help law enforcement leaders navigate the demands of data-driven policing and personnel management.