What can reform police practices? Consent decrees

The protests seem everywhere, groups of people longing for change, reform and accountability after the world saw a now-fired and charged Minneapolis police officer’s knee squeeze the life out of George Floyd. Other officers seen on tape are either participating or doing nothing.

A federal consent decree is forcing Newark’s police division to reform six years after the Justice Department hammered the division for rampant constitutional violations in policing and for an ineffective Internal Affairs Division, or IAD.

“This department today is miles ahead of where it was when we began this consent decree process,” said federal monitor Peter Harvey.

Harvey’s latest report cites a failed effort to draft a guide for IAD investigations. But Harvey and Newark Captain Brian O’Hara both insist the improvements are evident. Officers and supervisors are filing excessive force complaints against other officers.

“Today, unlike then, we have a number of complaints that are initiated by the department itself. And then officers are disciplined for those types of complaints, which was just not happening at all back then,” O’Hara said.

Harvey says Newark Police fired three officers last year, suspended 79 officers and 20 department civilians.

The Minneapolis officer whose knee pinned Floyd to the ground had more than a dozen complaints filed against him.

“What I see when I see this officer looking into the camera is the certainty in his mind that no one could stop him and nothing would be done about it. And so, internal affairs matters, significantly,” Harvey said.

Harvey, a former New Jersey attorney general, insists states’ attorneys’ general can satisfy the yearning for change by going to court.

“You need to re-write, or write for the first time, the training and you have to implement it. And what will make you do that? A consent decree. It is very difficult, given the strength of many police unions, to muster that kind of political will among city councils and a mayor. It’s very difficult, but a consent decree, a court order, can require it,” Harvey said.

“You can certainly get involved by reading books. And you can certainly get involved by showing up and showing support for your friends and family and community members, but you can also go to the ballot in November and vote. Vote for the leaders that you think share your vision of what will make for a just society going forward. There are things that can be done with legislative will. We just have to elect the people who are willing to do it,” said Jessica Henry, a professor in the justice studies department at Montclair State University.

Time, perhaps, for actions to speak louder than words as dozens of more protests and gatherings are planned for the weekend.