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Structural Reform Litigation in American Police Departments

By Stephen Rushin. Full text here.

In 1994, Congress passed 42 U.S.C. § 14141, a statute authorizing the Attorney General to seek equitable relief against local and state police agencies that are engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional misconduct. Although police departments in some of the nation’s largest cities have now undergone this sort of structural reform litigation, there has been little empirical research on the topic. Drawing on original interviews, court documents, statistical data, and media reports, this Article describes the federal government’s use of structural reform litigation in American police departments and theorizes on its effectiveness. It argues that structural reform litigation is uniquely effective at combating misconduct in police departments. It forces local municipalities to prioritize investments into police misconduct regulations. It utilizes external monitoring to ensure that frontline officers substantively comply with top-down mandates. And, it provides police executives with legal cover to implement wide-ranging reforms aimed at curbing misconduct. Although expensive, structural reform litigation may ultimately pay for itself through reducing a police department’s civil liability.

But structural reform litigation is far from a perfect regulatory mechanism. Successful organizational reform requires continual support from municipal leaders, dedication from executives within the targeted agency, and buy-in from frontline officers. This suggests that structural reform litigation alone is insufficient to transform a law enforcement agency. The financial burden of structural reform litigation falls on local police agencies over a relatively short period of time. Additional questions remain about whether targeted agencies will sustain reforms after federal intervention ends and about whether this type of federal intervention makes officers less aggressive. This Article concludes by showing how the lessons from structural reform litigation can inform future regulations of law enforcement.