Do Federal Consent Decrees Reduce Police Misconduct?

A study by three researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas offers cautious support to arguments that federal consent decrees prod police departments into reducing racial basis.

A study by three researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas offers cautious support to arguments that federal consent decrees prod police departments into reducing racial basis.

The study, published in the latest issue of Criminology & Public Policy, found a reduction in the number of civil rights suits launched against a selected group of law enforcement agencies placed under Department of Justice oversight under the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

“Reductions in such (civil rights) filings may signal increased satisfaction with police agencies and a move toward reduced systemic police conduct,” concluded the researchers, who examined consent decrees in 23 jurisdictions.

Their findings come as Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a sweeping review of the practice last month, arguing that such decrees “reduce morale” of police officers.

The study makes clear that its findings are not definitive, and that more research is necessary—pointing out the limited number of jurisdictions under study and the wide variations in the “socio-legal” environment across the country.

“Law firms may be more aggressive in one jurisdiction, or citizen legal activity could be more significant in one area compared with another,” the study said.

The authors also conceded that even if misconduct is reduced, there is no assurance that the change will be long-lasting or institutionalized.

Nevertheless the authors say DOJ oversight appears to be a valuable tool in raising public confidence.

“Once problematic agencies are identified, it could be reassuring to know that the U.S. Justice Department, through the consent decree process, possesses a tool for competently reducing the incidence of misconduct within America’s law enforcement agencies,” the study said.

The study was conducted by Zachary A. Powell, Michele Bisaccia Meitl and John L. Worrall. It’s available for a fee here. Journalists can get a copy by contacting Victoria Mckenzie at


Report: Minorities Feel Sting of Costly CA Traffic Fines and Fees

A legal advocacy group in the San Francisco area reports that Californians pay some of the highest fines and fees in the country for traffic infractions and that minorities are acutely affected.

A new study released today by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area says Californians pay some of the highest fines and fees in the country for traffic infractions and that minorities are acutely affected. The group’s report, Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System, says the fines and fees can create devastating financial hardship for low-income Californians. The punitive approach often includes driver’s license suspension, which can prompt a cascade of problems, including job loss, deepening poverty and incarceration.

Because of over-policing in communities of color and racial profiling, the study says, African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to receive traffic tickets than white and Asian individuals and are far more likely to be cited for driving without a license without also being cited for an observable offense. The new Bay Area data reveals that African Americans are up to 16 times more likely to be booked into county jail on a charge related to inability to pay a citation. The study recommends that fines and fees ought to linked to a subject’s ability to pay and that community service should be accepted in lieu of monetary payments.


Study Finds VT Police Biased; Agency Say Troopers Aren’t

A study of 5 years of data showed that Vermont State Police stopped black and Hispanic drivers at disproportionate rates. But the agency says troopers who stopped minority drivers more often had reasonable explanations.

Last spring, analyses of five years of data revealed clear racial disparities in Vermont State Police traffic stops. But after conversations with the troopers whose stops showed the greatest disparities, state police officials say they’ve found no instances of implicit or explicit racial bias, reports Vermont Public Radio. The conclusion illustrates the challenge of pinpointing the problem, and advocates say the police need to do more to identify bias in individual officers. An analysis by Northeastern University showed a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic drivers were pulled over. University of Vermont economics professor Stephanie Seguino then analyzed the data to find patterns after a car is pulled over, when an officer can be more certain of the race of the driver.

Seguino found that particularly for African-Americans, but also for Hispanics, there was a significantly higher likelihood of a driver being ticketed, arrested or searched compared to white drivers. The data included a breakdown by individual troopers, who were not identified publicly. This allowed Capt. Ingrid Jonas, the agency’s fair and impartial policing director, to talk with troopers who were “outliers” in the data. She said she found reasonable explanations. “I have not walked away from those interviews, those discussions, with a sense that this person might have an unconscious or even a conscious problem with bias,” she says.


Rate of Police Stopping Minorities Still High in Boston

About one-fourth of Boston’s population is black, but about 71 percent of street level police-civilian encounters from 2015 through early last year involved African Americans. That’s only a slight decline from the 73 percent figure of earlier years.

About one-fourth of Boston's population is black, but about 71 percent of street level police-civilian encounters from 2015 through early last year involved African Americans. That's only a slight decline from the 73 percent figure of earlier years . . .

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Three Whites Killed in Alleged CA Racial Attack

“These were unprovoked attacks,” says Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer. Kori Ali Muhammad, who is in custody, told police he wanted to kill as many white people as he could.

Three men were having a seemingly ordinary day in downtown Fresno, California, before they were singled out at random and killed by a black gunman targeting white victims, police said. The men happened to be on the same block, but had no known connection to each other or to the shooter, Kori Ali Muhammad, who told police he wanted to kill as many white people as he could before he was captured, reports the Associated Press.

A 34-year-old father of two preschoolers was on the job when he was shot yesterday in the passenger seat of a Pacific Gas & Electric utility truck. The driver wasn’t hit and sped toward the police department, but his partner couldn’t be saved. A 37-year-old man had just picked up a bag of groceries at a Catholic Charities building when he was gunned down. The third victim, a 59-year-old man, was gunned down in the parking of the Catholic Charities building. “These were unprovoked attacks,” said Police Chief Jerry Dyer. Muhammad, 39, is in custody and is expected to be charged with four counts of murder, for yesterday’s three victims and 25-year-old Motel 6 security guard, Carl Williams, another white man Muhammad shot last week.


Book Explores Black Culpability in Creating Mass Incarceration

James Forman Jr., a Yale law professor and former public defender in Washington, D.C., explores the culpability of black politicians, criminal justice officials, clergy members, activists and others in creating mass incarceration. His book is “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr., a Yale law professor and former public defender in Washington, D.C., explores the culpability of African Americans in creating mass incarceration in his new book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” The New York Times says the”superb and shattering” book pivots on the question of how people, acting with the finest of intentions and the largest of hearts, could create a problem even more grievous than the one they were trying to solve. Referring to Washington, he writes, “How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?”

Forman’s is compassionate. Seldom does he reprimand the actors in this story for the choices they made. When he discusses policy decisions first made in the 1970s, the audience knows what’s eventually coming — that a grossly disproportionate number of African-American men will become ensnared in the criminal justice system — but none of the players do. Not the clergy or the activists; not the police chiefs or the elected officials; not the newspaper columnists or the grieving parents. The legions of African Americans who lobbied for more punitive measures to fight gun violence and drug dealing in their own neighborhoods didn’t know that their real-time responses to crises would result in the inhuman outcome of mass incarceration.


The Immigration Crackdown: Is Anywhere Safe?

In our continuing series highlighting jurisdictions to watch as efforts to deport the undocumented multiply, John Jay researcher Daniel Stageman examines Alamance County in North Carolina, where a civil rights suit stopped local law enforcement from enforcing detention orders. Will it get new life under Trump?

Media and public attention on immigration enforcement has become vital in light of the Trump Administration’s continued impact on the news cycle.

The President’s announcement during his joint address to Congress in February that he was open to ‘compromise on immigration reform’ may not be a deliberate distraction from ongoing developments in enforcement and detention, but it attracted significant media attention that might otherwise have been turned elsewhere.

Among the substantive immigration enforcement developments that this and similar high-profile public announcements from the White House pushed out of the headlines were the increasingly aggressive actions of ICE agents themselves, who appear after the reversal of Obama-era discretion policies to be making symbolic arrests that sow fear among immigrant populations.

Some of these arrests seem tailor-made to communicate the message that literally nowhere is safe.

That undermines any sense of security that might be taken from sanctuary cities or sanctuary campuses. Perhaps more importantly, the arrests undermine the participation of undocumented immigrants (and, frequently, their US citizen children) in constitutionally protected human rights like public education and public safety.

This widespread sense of fear and insecurity compounds two other current issues regarding immigration control: the enormous and growing backlog of federal immigration cases—in a context where immigrants will now be nearly universally subject to mandatory detention while asylum and other immigration cases are under review; and the now-public efforts of DHS to quickly and significantly expand detention capacity by as many as 20,000 beds.

That suggests John Kelly, head of the Department of Homeland Security, expects a nearly 50% increase in the current “average daily population” (ADP) of 41,000 immigrants in detention on any given day.

Such an expansion will not only represent a windfall for private/for-profit detention providers like CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group, but also for the county sheriffs who operate local jails with spare beds that can be leased to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through intergovernmental service agreements (IGSAs) for what is often a lucrative per diem fee.

This phenomenon will likely be especially pronounced in jurisdictions along the US-Mexico border, where the ending of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) “catch-and-release” policy will mean yet another influx of new detainees.

Another key question is how the new hardline approach will work in counties where the 287g agreement is no longer in effect.  One example:  Alamance County in North Carolina.

The Alamance County Sheriffs’ Office (ACSO) lost its 287g agreement in 2012 in the midst of federal civil rights litigation alleging racial profiling of Latinos under the auspices of the program.  Thus, signing a new 287g with the ACSO would be a clear repudiation of Obama-era enforcement policy.

Such repudiations are arguably the Trump administration’s stock-in-trade across a whole spectrum of policy arenas, but the symbolism of entering an enforcement agreement with a jurisdiction previously under investigation for civil rights violations would be particularly telling.

The Alamance County Sheriff, Terry S. Johnson, appears in many of his public statements to be an ideologue in the mold of some other sheriffs previously covered in this series, if somewhat less outspoken. Perhaps the most significant differences between Alamance and the other jurisdictions we have examined are demographic. Alamance, with a population of about 150,000 has had a large and growing Latino community since the 1990s—accounting in the last census for over 11% of the county’s population.

From the perspective of those fighting the current administration’s immigration policies, the cancellation of its 287g agreement makes it an important jurisdiction.  Its 287g was ended  through the intervention of a tool—federal civil rights litigation—that is unlikely to be available to advocates under the current administration.

What other kinds of litigation or approaches to grassroots organizing remain possible in the face of an emboldened immigration enforcement apparatus?  That has yet to be tested, but a renewed 287g agreement in Alamance County would arguably represent an attack on civil rights and constitutional protections necessitating an early test of these strategies.

Using the format I applied in previous profiles of “jurisdictions to watch,” here is a closer look at Alamance County.


Graham, North Carolina. County seat of Alamance County. Photo by Doug Kerr via Flickr


Terry S. Johnson, a Republican, has been Alamance County Sheriff since 2002, and is currently under consideration for an appointment to the US Marshals Service under the Trump administration. Johnson, who was accused under the Department of Justice’s 2012 investigation of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) of referring to Spanish speakers as “taco eaters”, “received support [for his appointment] from every sheriff in the other 23 counties in the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina.”

The Department of Justice brought suit against Johnson himself (rather than the ACSO as a whole) in 2012, after he categorized the DOJ’s findings in their initial investigation as “completely false. ”In what was then a first for the DOJ’s civil rights actions against law enforcement agencies, the Department lost its case against Johnson in 2015, with US District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder finding that the government had not proved its argument.

While the DOJ originally appealed the verdict, it dropped that appeal in August of 2016.


280 in 2012.  That number is significantly lower than the annual average of 355 that the ACSO achieved in the five preceding years of 287g enforcement, and it likely reflected the pressure that the ongoing DOJ investigation put the department under.

Alamance County’s population of 150,000 was 11% Hispanic or Latino according to the 2010 census.  So if most of the arrestees processed for deportation were Latino county residents, around 2% of this community was directly affected on an annual basis. Given the likely indirect effects of this enforcement on children, partners, other family members, and the community at large, Alamance’s immigrant population may have long been familiar with the level of stress and uncertainty currently being experienced by immigrant communities nationwide.


The Intergovernmental Service Agreement through which ICE contracted with the Alamance County Jail to provide bed space for immigrant detainees appears to have been rescinded along with the county’s 287g MOA in late 2012. At its 2010-11 peak, however, its average of 45 immigrant detainees would have made up 15% of the jail’s average daily population of 300. As recently as 2016, the ACSO shuttered a 76-bed detention center “annex” as a cost-saving measure; as discussed above, there is a clear incentive to monetize this excess bed space under the Trump administration’s expansion of detention capacity.


The Alamance County Jail held an average of 29 immigrant detainees on any given day throughout 2012. This represents a significant drop-off from the approximate ADP of 89 when the county first signed its 287g MOA in 2007. With a per diem of $61, the ACSO’s detention and related operations yielded $2.6 million from ICE that year – $1.87 million for detention, and $730 thousand for transportation.

Alamance’s reduced 2012 ADP indicates a partnership going out of favor in the face of the DOJ’s ongoing civil rights investigation. Under these reduced circumstances, ADP income would likely have been cut by over 50% from documented 2007 levels ($71 x 29 detainees x 365 days) to $750,000 for detention alone. Alamance’s 2007 IGSA gives us the ability to further estimate a proportional income from transportation of $275,000 (730k/541 = $1,350 per detainee in 2007, or $1,565 x 176 total detainees in 2012).

Thus even under DOJ investigation, Alamance probably cleared $1 million in funding for detention and transportation of deportable immigrants. Interestingly, the total funding that could be directly attributed to Alamance’s enforcement activity under 287g—about $1.64 million ($71x 280 processed for deportation x 60-day average stay = $1.2m, + 280 x $1,565=$440k)—is in fact 60% higher than the amount the recorded ADP suggests, illustrating the clear budgetary importance of maintaining the appearance of unbiased enforcement under the Obama-era DHS.


Alamance County entered into its 287g enforcement agreement in 2007, as part of a wave of several North Carolina jurisdictions that joined that year. The ACSO’s original 287g memorandum of agreement was an agreement for jail enforcement only, adding a cautionary note to statements by other 287g-supporting sheriffs that jail enforcement agreements are intrinsically safer than street enforcement agreements or comparatively free of bias.

The crux of the DOJ’s case against Johnson was research indicating that Latinos in Alamance County were significantly more likely than other ethnicities to be stopped at ACSO roadblocks and for minor traffic violations, and more likely to be arrested rather than warned or cited when stopped. This largely replicated the enforcement patterns cited in criticisms that characterized 287g task-force agreements as biased and reliant on profiling.

The material difference between task-force and jail-based 287g agreements lies in the fact that interrogation about immigration status takes place within the confines of the county jail in the case of the latter, and in the public view for the former. This difference does not inoculate jail enforcement agreements from patterns of arrest intended to yield higher numbers of detentions and deportations.


As discussed above, whether under Sheriff Johnson during his remaining time in office, or under his successor at a later date, the reentry of an emboldened Alamance County Sheriff’s Office into the 287g fold would represent a clear symbolic break from Obama-era cautions around profiling-based immigration enforcement by local jurisdictions.

To renew an agreement with Alamance would arguably represent an implicit statement—at most hinted at in Trump’s January 25th Executive Orders and the follow-up Kelly memo—that racial profiling and other forms of biased enforcement would be tacitly acceptable for local jurisdictions acting in support of the administration’s stated detention and deportation goals.

Even in the context of an emboldened ICE and an increasingly indiscriminate immigrant detention and deportation regime, this tacit approval of unconstitutional policing practices would represent a new and extreme departure from established professional law enforcement standards.

Daniel Stageman

It would also be a redirection of the federal civil rights apparatus (encompassing both the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security) that has long been tasked with supporting them. Advocates and other close observers may well be expecting this departure, but would do well to keep an eye on Alamance County to see if it is confirmed.

Daniel L. Stageman, PhD is Director of Research Operations at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also a criminologist whose scholarship focuses on making sense of America’s punitive approach to immigrants. He can be contacted at dstageman(at) Other articles in his series are archived on The Crime Report: Etowah County, AL;    Frederick County, Md.; and Orange County, Ca.;  Read Dr. Stageman’s introduction to the series, “Where Will Trump’s Deportation Force Strike Hardest?” here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Is Plea Bargaining Color Blind?

A guilty plea is likely to win you less leniency in sentencing if you’re an African-American male, according to a study published in Justice Quarterly this month. With 95% of all convictions the result of guilty pleas—many of them arranged through plea bargaining—the study authors argue that more attention needs to be paid to potential bias in the early phases of case processing.

Black male defendants are less likely to receive lower sentences when they agree to plead guilty  than black females or whites of both genders, a new study found.

The study, published this month in Justice Quarterly, based its findings on data from 907  felony cases represented by public defenders in a circuit court in one of Florida’s larger counties.

The authors— Christi Metcalfe, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal justice at the University of South Carolina; and Ted Chiricos, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University—examined the factors that predict likelihood of plea across race and gender, and potential racial disparities in the plea value regarding charge reduction.

The study findings suggest that black defendants –and black males in particular—are less likely to plead guilty than white defendants, the authors said, adding that when guilty pleas are entered, black male defendants get the worst value for their plea.

While the authors say the data is not sufficient to conclude that the disparities are due to racial or gender bias, they argue that many defendants behave as if they assume such biases exist, further distorting justice system outcomes.

“If plea bargaining is viewed as advantageous for its more lenient sentencing outcomes, it appears that black males, and to a lesser extent white males, are disadvantaged in a system that relies heavily on plea bargaining”—particularly when, as the authors note, 95% of all convictions are the result of a guilty plea.

This study is available for purchase. Journalists can receive a full copy of the report by contacting Victoria Mckenzie at A summary is available here.

This summary was prepared by TCR intern Davi Hernandez



DOJ Issues Toolkit on Policing, Communities of Color

Russ Washington, acting director of DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said the new guide “provides practical and tangible strategies to help law enforcement officers build and maintain trust with the diverse communities they serve.”

The U.S. Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office (COPS) today released a new toolkit with resources to help build relationships of trust between law enforcement agencies and communities of color. The material was produced in partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

DOJ said that, “Bridging the Trust Gap Between Law Enforcement and Communities of Color” discusses “challenges that often plague law enforcement and communities of color, while offering proven strategies for success in overcoming those challenges and developing communities of trust.” Acting COPS Director Russ Washington said the toolkit “provides practical and tangible strategies to help law enforcement officers build and maintain trust with the diverse communities they serve.” The online toolkit is intended to be a resource for officers at all levels and to community members seeking guidance on ways to engage local law enforcement.


Black Pols Push Back Against Trump’s ‘Urban Carnage’ Views

At a White House sit-down, the Congressional Black Caucus presented Trump with a 130-page policy proposal with a taunting title: “We Have a Lot to Lose: Solutions to Advance Black Families in the 21st Century.”

Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus met with President  Trump on Wednesday about infrastructure and reducing urban crime, calling the sit-down a “positive” first step toward finding common ground, reports Reuters. The lawmakers presented Trump with a 130-page policy proposal titled “We Have a Lot to Lose: Solutions to Advance Black Families in the 21st Century,” a reference to Trump’s repeated query on the campaign trail asking what did blacks have to lose by supporting him.

Many black leaders have criticized his depiction of urban areas as crime-ridden war zones and his false claims that the first black U.S. president, Barack Obama, was born abroad. At the start of the meeting, Trump said he was serious about his promise to help African-Americans. “Every American child has a right to grow up in a safe community, to attend great schools, to graduate with access to high-paying jobs,” Trump said during the portion of the meeting open to reporters. But the relationship between blacks and Trump is fraught. Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana, said many  constituents had urged him not to meet with Trump “because of the rhetoric.”Richmond said, “We expressed that to him, because we’re certainly very clear of the emotions of African-Americans around the country.”