Consent Decrees and Unintended Consequences

lapd.jpgRobert Parry of the LA Daily News has written a curious column about the relationship between legal rules and police behavior.

As Parry explains:

In the late 1990s, rogue Rampart Division CRASH officers provided the Los Angeles Police Department’s legion of critics with ammunition . . . to place their vaunted enemy under the oversight of a federal court . . . All complaints against officers are now thoroughly investigated and subject to triple audits — by the LAPD Audit Bureau, the inspector general and the consent decree monitor . . . Serious uses of force are double-investigated — one administrative investigation and one criminal one . . . In short, after six years, if the LAPD was at all brutal and corrupt, shootings should be down, use of force down, complaints down, sustained complaints up and more officers prosecuted.

But, Parry asserts, shootings have increased 15%, complaints have increased, but guilty findings have decreased. Indeed, the “only statistic that appears to have tracked as the activists indicated is use of force. On a per-100-arrests basis, serious use of force is down about 20 percent.”

Parry asserts that these complicated data can be boiled down to a simple cause: “Cops are fleeing in record numbers [because of the increased supervision] . . . As a result, inexperienced cops with unseasoned supervision are using more deadly force and getting more complaints, but the force is deemed acceptable and the complaints are increasingly bogus.”

To my reading, this claim is bogus.

Attrition problems at the LAPD are old – they certainly predate the consent decree, starting as early in the mid-1980s. The problem’s severity has engendered a number of explanations, and solutions, varying from: excessive financial disclosure requirements, bad press due to the Rodney King riots, insufficient funds, a convoluted application process, bad equipment and physical plant, and even affirmative action policies. Shucks, the only explanation not offered is that LA’s famously sunny climate makes officers too happy to effectively walk the beat.

Even were attrition to be exacerbated by the consent decree, Parry still hasn’t come close to making his claim stick.


Assume that Parry’s data are accurate (which is a leap, I think, given the notorious unreliability of crime statistics generally). The problem is that Parry gives no sense of the underlying baseline or demographic trends which the reader would need to know what effect, if any, the consent decree is having on police conduct. Shootings are up, but compared to what baseline and what trend? Serious use of force is “down about 20 percent”: how does that compare to other similarly situated departments? Descritive statistics like these simply can’t be used to make the causal inferences that Parry leaps to.

With respect to the relationship between complaints filed, complaints sustained, and deterrence of brutality, the relationship is even more complex. I imagine that the point of the consent decree would not be to increase prosecutions of officers and resulting conviction rates, but rather to decrease officer brutality and corruption: a really successful deterrence system acts rarely, and either scares potential offenders into line or removes them from the force entirely.

Despite these issues, Mickey Kaus hypes this piece as Limits of Judicial Government, Part XVIII, with an exceedingly mild qualifier. Typical.

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1 Response

  1. Fraud Guy says:

    Or there could be failure to determine guilt because of institutional bias. The Chicago Tribune recently ran a piece on the elite crime unit which, though it is a small fraction of the total police force, had about 50% of the brutality complaints, with only one 15 day suspension and 2 reprimands from some 400+ complaints.

    Perhaps the auditors and investigators do not want to hinder the effectiveness of our police by being overly critical? Maybe they want to encourage everyone to be Keifer Sutherland or Clint Eastwood? Or perhaps I am being too cynical?