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DOJ investigation into Phoenix police: Role of a consent decree

The DOJ wants Phoenix city officials to sign a consent decree after a federal investigation into the city’s police. Here’s what that means.

PHOENIX — For more than two years, Justice Department investigators have reviewed Phoenix police officers’ use of force, alleged retaliation against protestors, treatment of the homeless population and other performance issues.

A proposed consent decree from the Justice Department comes as a surprise to Phoenix officials —  they weren’t allowed to preview it.

Under DOJ guidelines, the council could get a preview of the findings only if it agreed in principle to enter into a consent decree, with an outside monitor enforcing the agreement. 

What is a consent decree?

A consent decree is an agreement between two parties that acts as a legally binding performance improvement plan. 

“When the government sues a person or company and the defendant agrees to stop its illegal conduct, the government may agree not to pursue the case, and the court approves and issues a consent decree,” according to Cornell law. 

The federal government has used consent decrees frequently over the past three decades to overhaul police departments across the nation. The decrees set out certain actions for departments to take to avoid being sued by the federal government.

RELATED: 5 things the feds are investigating the Phoenix police for

Under the Clinton Administration, Pittsburgh became the first city in the U.S. to enter a consent decree in 1997. That agreement lasted until 2002 and mandated changes to Pittsburgh police around traffic stops, searches, and training methods.

The outcomes of a consent decree can widely vary. 

Reforms implemented in the early 2000s by Cincinnati were successful and is often considered a model for the consent decree process. Other cities have either failed with consent decrees or seen much slower progress. The Oakland Police Department, for example, has been under federal oversight since 2003. New Orleans has been under a consent decree with the DOJ since 2013. 

In the Phoenix case, the consent decree would commit the city to making specific changes in how police do their jobs. 

RELATED: DOJ rejects request for Phoenix leaders to preview findings of police investigation

What is the role of a monitor?

A monitor serves as an independent validator of the jurisdiction’s commitment to settle the issues found after an investigation. Monitors are chosen through intensive negotiations between the parties entering into a consent decree and with approval from the federal court which is supervising the agreement. 

The independent monitor will provide status reports on the agreed upon changes. 

Monitoring of the process is structured to move jurisdictions into compliance within the first five years, with monitors reviewed every two or three years, and all reports should be made publicly available, according to the DOJ. 

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