It’s become a routine American pastime: the spotlight of a federal Justice Department probe into grisly police killings of unarmed black people. Once you’ve seen those pixelated smartphone or half-working body-camera videos spreading like brushfire on social media, it’s safe to expect next an announcement from the U.S. attorney general. Like the iconic bat signal for Batman, post-shooting outrage typically boils down to collective cries for a federal follow-up. Is your city suffering from chronic lapses in police judgment? Call now for a free sample of DOJ to get you back on your feet.
But are Department of Justice investigations into the murky underbelly of law-enforcement misconduct really (ever) all that effective? That greatly depends on whether you pick paper, rock or scissors—or if you define effectiveness merely as the number of pages in lengthy, avuncularly worded reports. Two weeks after the Baltimore Police Department got served with its own damning federal write-up, there were few signs that Charm City’s head-cracking finest were hastily moving toward reform despite lots of talk about it. A charred West Baltimore and four acquitted police officers later, Wire-town is still full of nervous residents, rising violent crime and jumpy po-po. Some quietly suggest that last year’s “uprising” is bound for an even nastier repeat.
Optimistic counternarratives will argue that these things take time. But as black body counts pile up with no end in sight, an exasperated mood says that something’s got to give other than official-sounding pomp, fresh rounds of barely implemented “consent decrees,” and embarrassing probes that only end up leading to hush-money-level victim settlements burning holes in city budgets while doing little to repair permanently damaged lives. No, sorry: Those big Justice Department reports won’t change your bad-cop-afflicted city, and they sure won’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. Behold five reasons why:
DOJ reports spot problems. And they sure get heavy on the callouts and recommendations. But what good is that if they’re not enforcing the civil rights laws broken? It's bad enough that they take too long in the first place to investigate when trouble strikes. When those cases are wrapped up, the DOJ will force compliance through mediated “consent decrees,” the likes of which have grown more frequent in the past decade, designed to force trigger-happy police departments to radically alter the way they use force and connect with communities.
Yet as PBS’ Frontline found, the reforms miss deadlines by years, the taxpayer cost is insane, and “use of force by officers increased during and after the agreements. In five others, it stayed the same or declined.”
It is, arguably, the biggest problem with American policing in urban areas today: Sixty percent of big-city cops don’t live where they patrol. In Baltimore alone, nearly 80 percent of city police officers don’t live in the city (and yes, that includes the black cops who constitute 42 percent of Baltimore’s finest)—and yet the Justice Department report barely mentioned it.
Lack of residency requirements for urban cops is a law-enforcement formula set up to fail. How can you expect fully armed public servants to show any empathy toward people they don’t really know or understand on any sort of level outside of policing? Since they don’t live there, they’re not invested. The Ferguson, Mo., officer who killed Michael Brown commuted every day from 95-percent-white Crestwood, Mo.; the Cleveland cop who killed Tamir Rice lived in the totally white suburb of Independence, Ohio.
Most white officers involved in tragic big-city shootings of black residents live in cozy, very white, very suburban and mostly Republican congressional districts. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in June destroyed Milwaukee’s residency requirements for city workers, including police—and now the city wonders why tensions flared into rioting flames following its own police shooting. In essence, nationwide housing segregation (a major problem that the Obama administration tried to address amid congressional GOP grumbling) sets up a scenario whereby anxious police officers commute each day into what they perceive as dangerous concrete jungles full of restless natives.
What the Justice Department investigations and subsequent reports won’t highlight (when they should) is that American policing is a jacked-up medley of state and local law-enforcement rules. You travel from one state to the next and you just won’t know what sort of police swamp you’re stepping into. Problem is, there is no one set of national rules on policing, or a strictly observed national “101” on what’s acceptable.
Congress could be going about the business of crafting a police standard (instead of nosily sifting through presidential-candidate emails like gossipy kids in the cafeteria). The Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, made a big step in that direction when it released its “30 Guiding Principles on Use of Force” (pdf) report in March. (You should read it—and then ask your local police department if they got a copy.) But guess who shot down PERF’s main suggestion that agencies retrain officers to avoid conflict and respect the “sanctity of life” of everyone at all times? You guessed it: police unions.
There's not much else the Justice Department can do when powerful police unions refuse to work collaboratively on recommendations or respond constructively to intelligent performance critiques. The go-to lobby for most state, local and federal elected officials on “police reform” issues is their local police union—forced in large part by the ability of police unions to rally their members into crucial voting blocs on Election Day. With the re-emergence of a politically electrified “law and order” environment brought on by presidential dog whistling, don’t expect that to end anytime soon.
Justice Department probes could be a lot more insightful and helpful if they decided to get a bit more holistic on cause and effect. Still, few with the power, influence or noise to reduce police misconduct are willing to spotlight the direct link between urban decay and the frequency with which cops are killing or brutalizing underserved residents. A messier, less discussed narrative is how the blighted conditions of those killed created a path to those moments. So you can’t truly reform criminal justice until you eliminate poverty.
Upticks in crime, crumbling schools, persistent unemployment and environments creating chronic public health hazards can only aggravate the situation. A 2015 Century Foundation report suggests that the growing concentration of American poverty (particularly in the wake of recession and government budget cuts) is a significant factor contributing to police-community tensions. "Our governance and development practices ensure that significant segments of our population live in neighborhoods where there is no work, where there are underperforming schools, and where there is little access to opportunity," wrote Century fellow Paul Jargowsky.
Little surprise, then, when places like Ferguson, Baltimore and Milwaukee pop off. Without adequate and pre-emptive investment in those areas needing it most, the Justice Department will just keep wasting ink and headlines.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.