Federal investigations of police misconduct:
a multi-city comparison
&Rod K. Brunson
Published online: 25 October 2018
#Springer Nature B.V. 2018
Over the past two decades, high-profile federal investigations have examined the
policies and practices of several American police departments where civil rights
violations and police misconduct were deemed serious by the Department of
Justice. This paper focuses on four recent investigations: Baltimore, Chicago,
Ferguson, and New Orleans. We examine the specific types of misconduct
highlighted by the investigation of each department. Findings reveal both important
similarities and differences across the four cases.
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act contains a provi-
sion (§14,141) empowering the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate and
seek injunctions against police departments whose Bpolicy or practice^violates
federal law or has the effect of depriving persons of their constitutionally
protected rights. DOJ’s Civil Rights Division oversees the process, which
begins with a preliminary inquiry in response to complaints from individuals,
Crime, Law and Social Change (2019) 71:461–482
Rod K. Brunson
School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, 123 Washington Street, Newark, NJ 07102, USA
Department of Sociology, George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052, USA
public officials, or advocacy groups. Many of the initial investigations, which
are conducted confidentially, result in no further action . A small number of
these probes, however, yield evidence prompting wide-ranging formal investi-
gations. Such inquiries typically involve DOJ site visits, review of documents,
and interviews with police leaders, union representatives, city officials, and
Research has focused on different stages of the process: the negotiation of
consent decrees and memoranda-of-agreement and the implementation and sus-
tainability of reforms [4,17,20,29,32,36,38].
But researchers have not
analyzed the initial stage: DOJ’s seminal investigative reports on problem police
departments. Also called Bfindings letters,^such reports may be viewed as
indicators of the Justice Department’s construction of policing problems and
the solutions advocated for departments under scrutiny. And this is a public
exercise, unlike the hidden negotiation process or the detailed settlement agree-
ments that receive little if any media attention. It has been observed that
BDOJ’s settlement template has remained relatively unchanged over time [and
variation] occurs only at the margins^(:15). Other analysts note that DOJ’s
consent decrees typically include new use-of-force procedures, an early-warning
system, and a civilian complaint review board, and seek to increase supervision
of officers, reduce racial and gender bias, and curb unlawful stops and searches
(PERF, :6; :75). These patterns are derived from consent decrees and
agreements –not the DOJ’s foundational investigative reports, which target
city-specific problems in addition to more general issues.
Our study allows us to contribute to the broader literature on policing in urban
contexts –expanding the focus beyond either a single aspect of policing (e.g., excessive
force, community policing) or on select neighborhoods –to include analysis of larger
citywide patterns concerning a range of disconcerting law enforcement practices. DOJ
investigations are typically much more panoramic, offering a more thorough assess-
ment than what is customary in most other city-focused studies and offering rich results
for systematic analysis.
The study’s purpose is therefore twofold: First, to distill the core themes
across departments in the DOJ’s identification of key problems. This dimension
allows for broad conclusions, perhaps beyond the cities under scrutiny and
arguably pointing to a set of best practices in contemporary policing (see
). In fact, DOJ prioritizes investigations of departments facing challenges
Bcommon to many law enforcement agencies^and where the reforms likely
have broad applicability (DOJ, : 6).
Second, our analysis of the selected
reports allows for identification of problems specific to a particular department,
but in a more comprehensive waythanmostsuchstudies.
A consent decree is an enforceable settlement, monitored by a district court, designed to ensure a police
department’s compliance with the terms of the decree.
According to DOJ, BThe Division’s pattern-or-practice cases contribute to nationwide police reform by
promoting a model of constitutional policing applicable to any size department, in any part of the country^
(DOJ, : 40).
462 D’Souza A. et al.
Police misconduct and accountability
Research on police misconduct and accountability is vast (e.g., [33,37]). The
literature tends to focus on certain types of misconduct more than others:
Excessive force, verbal abuse, corruption, racial discrimination, and unwarranted
stops have been studied frequently, while perjury, evidence tampering, and
improper interrogation techniques have attracted less scholarly research. The
incidence of various types of misconduct varies between and within cities, being
more pronounced in some than in others . Our study identifies the types of
misconduct that DOJ investigators deemed most serious and pervasive in our
four study settings.
The reports resulting from these investigations can be considered forms of account-
ability in themselves, whether or not they result in lasting reforms. At a minimum, they
can have a symbolic effect on command staff and (at least some) rank-and-file officers,
by highlighting patterns of misconduct and ratifying norms of good policing. Beyond
that, there are cities where an investigation and consent decree has produced meaning-
ful institutional reforms –including Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC ([8,
20]; ODCA, [23,36]). Such federal investigations thus have potentially important
symbolic and practical benefits.
Commissions of inquiry
There is a long history of blue-ribbon commissions, established to investigate
police misconduct as well as the protests and riots resulting from dubious police
actions. A succession of commissions, beginning with the1917 investigation of
riots in East St. Louis, tended to demonize or marginalize protestors while offering
little or no thoughtful critique of local authorities’conduct [19,25]. In some cases,
riots were not only precipitated by troubling police actions but also qualify as
Bpolice riots^themselves, with officers serving as Bthe major or even the only
perpetrators of disorder, violence, and destruction^(:16). In other cases, a
commission’s call for improved police-community relations was coupled with
recommendations for greater formal social control, by increasing the size of the
city’s police force and expanding riot-control capacities (: 40). Because these
early commissions focused largely on reformsdesignedtopreventfutureriots,their
assessment of policing was secondary and less critical than more recent commis-
sions that focus on controversial law enforcement practices. Among the latter are
the Knapp and Mollen Commissions in New York, which uncovered serious,
systemic corruption in the NYPD in 1972 and 1994; the Christopher Commission
that investigated police misconduct in Los Angeles following the videotaped
beating of Rodney King in 1991; and the President’s Task Force on Twenty- First
Century Policing, which followed in the wake of a series of police killings of
unarmed civilians .
Another type of commission-of-inquiry consists of DOJ investigations of selected
police departments. Such inquiries provide unique data illustrating the ways in which
the Justice Department studies and constructs serious policing problems at the munic-
ipal level and the kinds of remedies it prioritizes for ameliorating these problems. The
federal role in promoting improvements in policing in the past is particularly salient in
Federal investigations of police misconduct: a multi-city comparison 463
light of the Trump administration’ssuspensionofDOJ’s pattern-or-practice investiga-
tions as well as the separate collaborative reform programs initiated by police depart-
ments in conjunction with DOJ .
Data sources and methods
We conducted a content analysis of four recent DOJ investigations of police
misconduct: New Orleans , Ferguson , Baltimore  and Chicago .
The cases were selected because each experienced a major incident or series of
incidents prior to the investigation; each ignited public outrage (including street
protests in three of the cities); and each received massive media coverage. The
Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago investigations were launched after an unarmed
black man died as a result of police actions. In Ferguson and Chicago, Michael
Brown and Laquan MacDonald, respectively, were shot and killed by one police
officer, while in Baltimore; Freddie Grey was fatally injured while being
transported to a police station. The New Orleans report differed in that it was not
a response to a single incident but instead evaluated a culmination of problems that
had plagued the police department for years. At the time, DOJ’s involvement was
Bthe most comprehensive agreement the Civil Rights Division has ever entered into
with a police department^.
Each investigation presented comprehensive findings regarding multiple aspects of
policing. This included explorations into training, constitutional policing, data man-
agement, oversight, and community engagement. Investigations also included inter-
views with community leaders, police officers and local residents, as well as the
analysis of individual incident reports and departmental policies. Reports range in
length from 105 to 164 pages.
The lead author read each report in its entirety, performed initial coding, and then
secondary coding and analysis of each report by hand (recording extensive notes in the
margins) to identify common themes as well as department-specific issues. Data were
initially organized into more than 50 codes, which included constructs like
Bunconstitutional policing,^Bforce,^Boversight/supervision,^Byouth policing,^and
Bdiscriminatory policing.^Given the number and breadth of the preliminary codes,
some material was multi-coded. Data were then organized, by the three authors, into
major codes and subcodes. Major codes are types or categories of content (e.g., use of
force) and subcodes are subsidiary items under a major code (e.g., misuse of weapons)
. We recorded the presence or absence of codable content in each report and paid
special attention to both commonalities and differences across the four reports. When
there was initial disagreement on coding/analysis among the authors, we discussed the
discrepancies and reached agreement. The research team took considerable care to
ensure that the material quoted below typified or illustrated the most common themes
and subthemes in the reports.
Our analysis identified three main policing problems across the four reports: (1)
improper stops, searches, and arrests, (2) use of language/verbal abuse, and (3) use of
excessive or unnecessary force. These problems were often linked to problematic
department policies or officer violation of policies, to deficiencies in officer training
and accountability, and to racially-biased practices.
464 D’Souza A. et al.
Stops, searches, and arrests
DOJ found that Ferguson, Baltimore, and New Orleans had engaged in a pattern of
improper stops, searches, and arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
numerous occasions, Ferguson officers detained individuals, sometimes for lengthy
periods, Bwithout articulable reasonable suspicion of criminal activity^;arrestedpeople
Bfor conduct that plainly does not meet the elements of the cited offense^; and relied
heavily on the charge Bfailure to comply^to arrest individuals Beven when refusal is
not a crime^(Ferguson, 17–19). In addition, Ferguson officers frequently made
pedestrian stops that lacked reasonable suspicion (Ferguson, 18).
In the other cities, unconstitutional stops were coupled with unjustified searches and
arrests. Officers attempted to justify these searches by invoking concerns for officer
safety, but failed to specify safety risks (e.g., presence of weapons). In Baltimore, DOJ
found multiple instances where officers strip-searched individuals in public and often
without legal justification. DOJ condemned this: Bstrip searches are ‘fairly understood’
as ‘degrading’and, under the Fourth Amendment, are reasonable only in narrow
circumstances. Strip searches are never permissible as part of a pre-arrest weapons
Unlawful arrests were documented as well. For instance, in New Orleans, DOJ
Bfound that a significant portion [of arrests] reflected on their face apparent constitu-
tional violations, in that officers failed to articulate sufficient facts to justify. .. arrests,^
and that the department seemed to Bencourage stops without reasonable suspicion,
illegal pat downs, and arrests without probable cause^(New Orleans, viii). Responding
to supervisors’persistent directives to Bclear corners,^Baltimore officers approached
individuals occupying public space and arrested them if they were unable to adequately
Bjustify^their presence. In Ferguson, officers frequently used Bwanted^or Bstop
orders^Bwhen officers believe a person has committed a crime but are not able to
immediately locate that person^(Ferguson, 22). Wanted orders are entered into a
statewide database Bindicating to all other law enforcement agencies that the person
should be arrested if located^(Ferguson, 22). FPD officers then used wanteds to stop
and question people Bbecause they lack probable cause^or reasonable suspicion and to
avoid involving a magistrate (Ferguson, 22). DOJ called this practice an Bend-run
around the judicial system,^allowing officers to Bcircumvent the courts^and resulting
in Bnumerous unconstitutional arrests^(Ferguson, 22, 23).
The reports identified some key factors contributing to improper stops, searches, and
arrests. First and foremost, they were linked to questionable policies. The Baltimore
and New Orleans reports targeted the city’s zero-tolerance orientation. In the hope of
discouraging serious crimes by fully enforcing laws against minor offenses, the zero-
tolerance policy encourages officers to initiate often unnecessary and intrusive contacts
Stops and arrests were not examined in depth in the Chicago report, due to its primary focus on use of force,
police-community relations, and accountability. The report does, however, detail how unlawful stops led to
pursuits that often resulted in the use of excessive force. An earlier report by a Police Accountability Task
Force went into more detail regarding stops, searches, and arrests (Chicago Task Force).
None of the other reports discussed strip searches.
Federal investigations of police misconduct: a multi-city comparison 465
with citizens. In New Orleans, Bpatrol officers and many members of the command
staff described a Department that has long been statistics-driven –one that measures
‘productivity’by quantity, rather than quality, of encounters and arrests^(New
Orleans, 29). Officers reported being pressured to conduct street stops for
intelligence-gathering purposes. In just 4 months in 2010, NOPD conducted
24,000 stops, whereas in the previous three and half years prior to launching this
initiative, they conducted 29,800 (New Orleans, 29). Moreover, Bpressure to
achieve a high volume of field interviews comes with little correlative emphasis
on gathering and using quality intelligence. Officers reported that they rarely, if
ever, find [stop] data useful^(New Orleans, 30).
The Baltimore and New Orleans reports asserted that by focusing on statistics, police
leaders incentivized officers to make illegal stops. With the emphasis on quantifiable
practices, like stops and arrests, officers are not only under pressure to generate
numbers, but this policy also discourages officers from building community partner-
ships or adhering to Constitutional norms. The reports drew attention to efforts to
implement community policing, but noted that they were not particularly fruitful. In
Baltimore, the failure of community policing was attributed to Bthe legacy of the zero
tolerance era,^which began in the early 2000s and Bcontinues to influence officer
activity and contribute to constitutional violations^(Baltimore, 24). Similarly in New
Orleans, police practices were detached Bfrom problem-oriented policing, community
partnerships, or long-term strategies^and there was Bno indication that [the depart-
ment’s] emphasis on arrests results in better crime prevention or safer communities^
(New Orleans, viii).
One policy distinguished Ferguson from the other cities –the department’s
outsized role in generating revenue for the city. Police practices resulted in
Ferguson’s municipal court disposing of about 1.5 cases and 3 warrants per
household in 2013; fines and court fees comprised the second largest source of city
revenue, totaling $2.64 million (St. Louis ); and city officials prided themselves
on having much higher revenue from fines than nearby jurisdictions (Ferguson, 9–
10). Regarding racial disparities, a recent study found that the black-white ratio in
sanctions for code violations in Ferguson ranged from 3:1 to 17:2 –the higher
disparities (including 90% of traffic citations) being highly disproportionate to the
black composition of the population .
DOJ was highly critical of this policing-for-profit policy:
The City directs FPD to aggressively enforce the municipal code. City and police
leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety
need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget. . . . FPD
supervisors are more concerned with the number of citations and arrests officers
produce than whether those citations and arrests are lawful or promote public
safety. (Ferguson, 10, 22)
The study also found that Ferguson was hardly alone in its revenue-policing orientation. Indeed, it ranked
fifth among all municipalities in St. Louis County in the collection of revenue from traffic fines and court costs
In 2013, Ferguson’s Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: BCourt fees are anticipated to rise about
7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try^
(quoted in Ferguson, 2).
466 D’Souza A. et al.
Indeed, in 2010 the department implemented 12-hour shifts in order to increase traffic
enforcement and investigative stops. Many of the citations ultimately lead to arrest
warrants and jail time for people whose original minor infraction or offense would not
normally justify incarceration.
Not only did this embitter residents, it also produced a warped departmental culture:
Officers told DOJ investigators that some colleagues Bcompete to see who can issue the
largest number of citations during a single stop^(Ferguson, 11). Contributing to that
culture, the number of arrests and tickets influenced officers’performance reviews,
salary, and prospects for promotion. DOJ linked the policing-for-profit practice to
officer misconduct insofar as it sent Ba potent message to officers that their violations
of law and policy will be tolerated, provided that officers continue to be ‘productive’in
making arrests and writing citations^(Ferguson, 12). Police and city officials closely
monitored traffic enforcement practices, not in response to public safety concerns but
instead to ensure that they were Bbringing in revenue at the desired rate^(Ferguson,
12). DOJ was unequivocal in demanding termination of this policy: BThe City must
replace revenue-driven policing with a system grounded in the principles of community
policing and police legitimacy.. ..^(Ferguson, 6). In 2015, the Missouri legislature
passed a bill that prohibited jail time for minor traffic violations, capped the amount of a
fine for minor traffic offenses at $300, reduced the amount of city revenue that can be
derived from fines, and prohibited adding charges for missing a court date .
In Baltimore, Ferguson, and New Orleans, deficient training and oversight were
identified as central to the issue of improper stops, searches, and arrests. For example,
in New Orleans, officers received training only in their recruit classes, not subsequent
in-service sessions. As a result, officers had insufficient knowledge of recent legal
decisions. As one district commander stated, BThis gets us in so much trouble. .. .
[What cadets] learn at the Academy is sucked right out of their heads as soon as they
leave^(New Orleans, 28). Insufficient knowledge of recent legal decisions, for exam-
ple, created a default where officers relied on peers whose flawed interpretations of the
law could shape their behavior on the street.
The training that officers did receive was sometimes defective as well. For example,
a 2009 stop-and-frisk lesson plan in Baltimore specified that Binvestigative contacts of
citizens by members of this agency will be conducted with articulable reason,^which
misstates the Terry requirement of reasonable suspicion (Baltimore, 44).
Bthroughout the training, and on the reporting form, stop and frisk are consistently
For example, BIn 2013, the court issued over 9000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor
violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered
far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely
issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees^
Investigative stops require merely that police have reasonable suspicion that a crime may have been or will
be committed, based on the circumstances. A higher legal standard –fact-based probable cause that a crime
has been or will be committed –is needed before an officer is justified in making an arrest. Thus, reasonable
suspicion provides officers legal standing to question and frisk suspicious persons when they lack probable
cause to make an arrest. Reasonable suspicion is a standard established in a 1968 Supreme Court ruling, Terr y
v. Oh i o.
Federal investigations of police misconduct: a multi-city comparison 467
mentioned together, suggesting to officers that frisks are a matter of course during any
stop^and not subject to additional justification by officers (Baltimore, 44).
in Baltimore and New Orleans training manuals were either outdated or so vague as to
provide little guidance to officers. During both in-class and field training, recruits were
not provided with adequate definitions or practical examples of proper legal procedure.
In New Orleans, 80% of officers in a department survey agreed that their field training
program needed major improvement, with some calling the program Bdefunct^(New
Finally, oversight regarding stops and arrests was largely ineffective. New Orleans
sergeants, for instance, were often unable to review all submitted documents and
effectively monitor rank-and-file personnel because they were assigned far too many
officers, with the result that Bthis can undermine unity of command and make it more
difficult to effectively supervise, counsel, and assist officers^(New Orleans, 63).
Officer misconduct was therefore likely to go unnoticed by superior officers.
Reports consistently showed that African-Americans were disproportionately impacted
by stops, searches, and arrests. For example, after examining 5 years of data, DOJ
investigators found that BBPD officers made 520 stops for every 1,000 black residents
in Baltimore, but only 180 stops for every 1,000 Caucasian residents^(Baltimore, 48).
In Ferguson, of the 11,610 stops over a two-year span, African-Americans accounted
for 85% of vehicle stops and 95% of Bwalking in the roadway^charges, while they
comprised 67% of the population (Ferguson, 64, 67). While the NOPD Bdoes not
collect, analyze, or report race or ethnicity data for most citizen encounters with
police,^DOJ’s own investigation found a Bparticularly dramatic disparity for
African-American youth under the age of 17^(New Orleans, xi, 38). The arrest ratio
for black and white youth for UCR Index offences was 16:1 in 2009 and 11:1 in 2010,
when adjusted for population. Racial differences for adults also existed, but the
numbers for arrested minority youth revealed a more Btroubling disparity^(New
Orleans, 39). Overall, African-Americans were more likely to experience stops irre-
spective of population, precinct, or other factors.
The reports analyzed post-stop outcomes as well. In Ferguson, the data collected
during stops Breliably shows statistically significant racial disparities in the outcomes
people receive after being stopped^(Ferguson, 64). For example, black drivers were
twice as likely as white drivers to be searched (11% vs. 5%), yet blacks were 26% less
likely to have contraband than whites (Ferguson, 64–65.) Racial disparities were
criticized in all four reports.
Investigators also examined the likelihood of criminal cases being dismissed. In
Baltimore, charges for serious offenses were dismissed Bat nearly identical rates across
racial groups^(Baltimore, 57). For other offenses, however –e.g., resisting arrest,
trespassing, failure to obey, disorderly conduct –dismissal rates were routinely higher
In Chicago, DOJ stated, BOf particular concern to us were officers who did not appear to recognize when
profiling was unlawful. One sergeant told us that ‘if you’re Muslim, and 18 to 24, and wearing white, yeah,
I’m going to stop you. It’s not called profiling, it’s called being pro-active’^(Chicago, 144).
Disparities in policing practices were measured in several ways and controlled for a range of variables: city
demographics, location of stop, officer experience, and number of stops per person.
468 D’Souza A. et al.
for blacks, Bdemonstrating that, where officers have wider discretion to make arrests,
they exercise it in a discriminatory manner^(Baltimore, 57). Ferguson’s figures showed
that blacks were 68% less likely to have their cases dismissed, and they were also
assessed higher average fines than members of other racial groups. In short, residents
were subjected to Ba comprehensive municipal justice system that, at each juncture,
enforces the law more harshly against black people than others^(Ferguson, 63).
Statistics for each city showed racial disparities in stops, searches, and arrests. The
reports were extremely critical of these practices, arguing that the departments had, as
the New Orleans report stated, Bfailed to take steps to counteract bias and promote
impartial policing through proactive policies, clear messages from leadership, effective
supervision, and quality training^(New Orleans, x).
Language and verbal abuse
Racist language was the most commonly described type of verbal misconduct in DOJ’s
reports. Such language helped to create and reinforce Ba mindset [that] has desensitized
many officers from the humanity of the people of color they serve, setting the stage for
the use of excessive force^and other misconduct (Chicago, 146). African Americans
reported being called Bnigger^and Banimals,^among other slurs. Officers interviewed
by DOJ not only affirmed overhearing this language, but some even made racially
insensitive comments during interviews with researchers, referring to specific minority
neighborhoods as Bsafaris^or Bwar zones.^Slurs were often used by officers during
routine stops and searches, often as a means to control citizens who complained or
questioned officers’actions. For example, officers called a Chicago man a Bmouthy
nigger^and assaulted him for asking why he was being arrested (Chicago, 147). The
man later sued and won a judgment against the department.
The Chicago and Ferguson reports also noted officers’sharing of racially derog-
atory opinions and humor through work emails and social media. In Ferguson, DOJ
found evidence of racial bias in communications (e.g., email) even among high-
level police officials, which included disparaging comments and racist jokes. The
report noted that none of these individuals were disciplined or told to refrain from
engaging in such speech. Similarly in Chicago, officers publicized their prejudices
via social media, even though such postings were prohibited by the department.
This included disparaging comments about Muslims and the Black Lives Matter
movement and sharing photos that ridiculed minorities.
DOJ condemned these
communications as Bunequivocally derogatory, dehumanizing, and demonstrative
of impermissible bias^(Ferguson, 71).
BSeveral CPD officers posted social media posts contain disparaging remarks about Arabs and Muslims,
with posts referring to them as Bseventh century Islamic goat humpers,^BRagtop,^and making other anti-
Islamic statements. . . . Supervisors posted many of the discriminatory posts we found, including one sergeant
who posted at least 25 anti-Muslim statements and at least 43 other discriminatory posts, and a lieutenant who
posted at least five anti-immigrant and anti-Latino statements. . . . Even when CPD learns of overtly
discriminatory statements, its response reflects a lack of sufficient concern about such conduct^(Chicago,
Federal investigations of police misconduct: a multi-city comparison 469
Complaints regarding racist language were often classified as minor infractions.
In New Orleans, complaints regarding racialized language were recorded under the
rubric of Bprofessionalism.^Therefore, despite multiple allegations from citizens
in the files reviewed by DOJ, the 2009 annual report of the Public Integrity Bureau
states that Bthere were zero racial profiling complaints that year^(New Orleans,
84). Baltimore’sBdisciplinary matrix makes it clear that ‘conduct relating to a
person’s race’is a serious offense that may result in termination^(Baltimore, 68).
Yet, Bin nearly every case in which an officer allegedly used a racial slur, BPD
officials categorized the allegation merely as ‘discourtesy’or using ‘inappropriate
language’^(Baltimore, 68). Supervisors failed to classify citizen complaints of
verbal abuse, including use of the word Bnigger,^as a racial slur or bias 98% of the
time. The DOJ denounced this whitewashing practice, suggesting Bthat BPD
investigators routinely. .. concealed the racial nature of interaction[s] and avoid[ed]
determining whether the heightened discipline required for using a racial slur
should be imposed^(Baltimore, 70). When discipline was imposed in Ferguson
for the use of racial epithets, it was generally Btoo low to be an effective deterrent^
Finally, citizen complaints regarding racist and other verbal abuse were rarely
sustained. In Chicago, DOJ reviewed the department’s complaints database and
found 980 complaints coded as Bdiscriminatory verbal abuse on the basis of race
or ethnicity^from 2011 to March 2016. Only 1.3% of these complaints were
sustained. The database also contained 354 complaints regarding use of the
word Bnigger^or one of its variants; only 1.1% of such complaints were
sustained (Chicago, 146). Typically, complaints were upheld only when there
was irrefutable evidence of officers’statements, such as audio recordings. Yet
such documentation did not necessarily result in sanctions. In June 2015, for
example, the local ABC News channel notified the Chicago Police Department
about an officer calling for a Brace war^on social media. The case remained
pending for nearly a year and the officer continued to post numerous racially-
The reports also criticized the use of sexist language, which could intersect with the
treatment of women. This included calling them insulting names, like Bwhore^or
Bbitch,^or threatening them during encounters. These practices were documented for
all cities except Ferguson, based on interviews with victims and victim advocates as
well as in police reports.
The relation between prejudicial language and apathetic treatment of victims is
illustrated in cases where officer discourse during investigations of violence against
women was coupled with lax investigations. For example, NOPD’s
culture tolerates and encourages under-enforcement and under-investigation of
from the [department’s] reluctance to acknowledge the extent of serious crime in
their communities, and in part from stereotypes and misapprehension about
sexual assaults and the victims of sex crimes. (New Orleans, v, xi)
470 D’Souza A. et al.
Officers tended to question assault victims in ways that implied blame or guilt.
Detectives Basked victims why they did not resist, why they put themselves in certain
situations, and why they did not immediately disclose the assault to the police, family,
or friends^(New Orleans, 46). Officers also reportedly asked Bwhy are you messing
that guy’slifeup?^–asserting that the victim should feel responsible for harming the
accused (Baltimore, 122). In an anonymous survey of victims in New Orleans,
respondents reported that officers’line of questioning increased feelings of shame
and self-blame. One participant believed that detectives were Bthere to catch me in a
lie, not to help,^while others stated that officers Bseemed bored^or Bannoyed^with
their cases (New Orleans, 47). One victim was told by detectives that Bthere was
nothing to report, that NOPD didn’t have the manpower to handle [her] case, and [she]
could go to the hospital or urgent care if [she] wanted^(New Orleans, 47). The
perception that sexual assault was not a serious crime was documented in discourse
in Baltimore and Chicago as well. For instance, a Baltimore officer made distinctions
between Breal victims^served by homicide detectives and the Bbullshit cases^he was
working on in the Sex Offense Unit (Baltimore, 122).
In some instances, officers openly attacked victims’moral character. An email
exchange between an officer and prosecutor in Baltimore reveals antipathy and derision
toward a victim: referring to her as a Bconniving little whore,^they stated that they
were reluctant to file charges on the case (Baltimore, 122). Similarly, the Baltimore
report found that the department was quick to disregard cases involving sex workers,
which DOJ called Ba particularly troubling trend given the vulnerability of those
individuals to rape^(Baltimore, 123). These three reports repeatedly showcased a lack
of empathy concerning Bhow to interact with victims in a manner that encourages their
participation in the investigation^(Chicago, 70) and only intensified Ba victim’s
reluctance to cooperate with an investigation or prosecution^(New Orleans, 46).
All reports except Ferguson also highlighted issues relating to transgender
populations. First, transgender individuals were likely to be unfairly stopped and
searched, as well as suspected of prostitution. Second, transgenders, especially in
Chicago, raised concerns that their department was not responding to hate crimes
committed against them. And third, the Baltimore report noted the use of
Bdisparaging and inappropriate comments^toward this population. Officers typi-
cally failed to acknowledge transgender women as women, and instead referred to
them as males, Bit,^or Bthat,^among other dehumanizing remarks. For instance, a
female supervisor summoned to conduct a search of a transgender woman reportedly
remarked, BI am not here for this shit. I am not searching that.. .. I don’tknowifyou’re a
boy or a girl. And I really don’t care, I am not searching you^(Baltimore, 123). These
kinds of sentiments together with indifference toward investigating sexual assault
allegations Bmay compromise the effectiveness and impartiality of BPD’sresponseto
reports of sexual assault and discourage women and transgender individuals from
engaging with the criminal justice system^(Baltimore, 123).
Demeaning language affects not only the recipient but can also sour police relations
with the wider public. The Chicago report noted that community-oriented policing
practices were being dramatically undermined by officers who converse with citizens
Federal investigations of police misconduct: a multi-city comparison 471
unprofessionally. All four reports portrayed verbal abuse as counterproductive, as it
discouraged people from cooperating with the police and thus undermined public
safety. Verbal abuse demonstrated a Bprevalent ‘us-versus-them’mentality^that affect-
ed officers throughout the organization (Baltimore, 157; cf. New Orleans; 102).
Officers repeatedly expressed their desires to Bown the block^and Bto be the baddest
motherfucker out there^(Baltimore, 157). Conversations with police often left citizens
feeling alienated and Bsubhuman^(Chicago, 146).
In all four investigations, residents provided detailed accounts and formal reports of
instances when they were Bbelittled, disbelieved, and disrespected by officers^(Balti-
more, 157). For instance, during an altercation in a dog park, an officer told the civilian,
Bfuck you, you fucking nigger, you should keep your big mouth shut^;whenthe
woman’s husband challenged the officer’s verbal assault of his wife, the officer
responded, BI don’tcareifshe’s pregnant. I’ll beat her fuckin’ass too^(Chicago,
146–147). The complaint was sustained only because the victim’s husband, a police
officer in a neighboring city, had documented the incident in detail (Chicago, 146).
(The officer was suspended for 15 days.) New Orleans was characterized as having
aculture of Bdiscourtesy, disrespect, and an unwillingness to listen^(New Orleans,
102). Indeed, one NOPD leader lamented officers’tendency to Bdisrespect^and
I’m trying to get officers to understand that the public just wants to know why
they are being detained, the purpose of the citation, what are my recourses and
just show me some professionalism, and some courtesy, and some respect. The
public is hungry for this type of interaction. (New Orleans, 102)
Use of force
A nationwide survey of police officers reported that 31% believed that officers are
not permitted to use as much force as is Boften necessary^in making arrests .
Yet, in our four cities improper use of force was identified as a major problem. It
was presented as a deeply embedded practice, not attributable to Bbad apples^or
isolated episodes. DOJ stressed that these behaviors were largely the result of
insufficient training, oversight, and faulty policies, which together cultivated a
culture of acceptance and encouragement of this behavior. Moreover, accountability
for excessive force was deficient: In Ferguson, for example, BOfficers’use of force
frequently go unreported, and are reviewed only laxly when reviewed at all^
Data examined by DOJ included departmental reports, relevant policies, training
manuals, and interviews with officers and community members. However, all
departments encountered widespread problems, including underreporting, which
resulted in insufficient data regarding officer use of force. For instance, the NOPD
made 6787 arrests in June 2010, yet reported only 34 times when force was used:
BGiven the number of arrests NOPD officers make, such claims lack credibility and
indeed, officers, supervisors, and commanders at all ranks expressed to [DOJ
investigators] a lack of confidence that force is consistently reported^(New
Orleans, 14). Deficient reporting also consisted of boilerplate or vague language.
Ter ms lik e Bactively resisted^or Bbecame subdued^(Chicago, 31, Baltimore, 104)
472 D’Souza A. et al.
were often either incomplete or inaccurate descriptions of incidents. This dearth of
detail impeded investigations of individual officers as well as the department’s
capacity to identify larger patterns regarding misuse of force.
The Chicago report noted how the use-of-force form’s format discouraged officers
from elaborating on incidents. Forms allowed officers to simply check boxes, including
type of force used, number of blows, and injuries suspects sustained. The report noted
that Bthere is a small textbox on the form for the officer to include additional
information, but it is too small to provide an actual narrative of the encounter and
officers rarely use it at all^(Chicago, 42). Incident reporting problems were well
documented in all four reports. Nevertheless, even with this incomplete data, DOJ’s
reports clearly showed a pattern and practice of unreasonable and unconstitutional use
of force within all precincts examined.
The four reports stressed the way routine encounters could escalate, leading to serious
injury or death. One of the major themes was the failure to de-escalate encounters when
it was reasonable to do so. Not only did officers fail to de-escalate situations, but they
often acted in ways that encouraged injurious outcomes. These were not isolated
incidents, as countless examples depicted officers escalating tensions regardless of
the level of threat that suspects presented. In Ferguson, officers used force Bas a
punishment for non-compliance with an order that lacked legal authority,^including
stopping individuals without reasonable suspicion or arresting them without probable
cause (Ferguson, 34). Even when officers had legal grounds they would Bfrequently
take actions that ratchet up tension and needlessly escalate the situation to the point that
they feel force is necessary^(Ferguson, 34–35). The Baltimore report also discussed
how minor things like loitering could trigger aggressive actions against citizens: BWhen
subjects do not immediately comply with officers’commands, rather than attempt to
problem-solve or use conflict-resolution skills, officers resort too quickly to physical
force even if individuals do not present a threat to them or others^(Baltimore, 76).
One of the problems discussed in the four reports was the overuse of weapons.
Weapons were often used against people who posed no threat during traffic stops,
while running away, and in other situations; and Tasers and firearms were discussed
most frequently. Weapons were depicted as Ba tool of convenience, with insufficient
concern or cognizance that it is a weapon with inherent risks that inflicts significant
pain^(Chicago, 33). The Ferguson report highlighted two instances where officers
displayed their weapon, seemingly to coerce compliance and assert their authority. Both
times, weapons were drawn prior to and without any physical or verbal provocation
from citizens (Ferguson, 84). Officers in Chicago routinely Bexhibited poor discipline
in discharging their weapons, reflecting disregard for innocent bystanders and consti-
tutional standards^(Chicago, 28).
In addition, the reports on Ferguson and New Orleans critiqued police use of another
Bweapon^: canine deployment. The New Orleans report stated that none of the dogs in
the unit were certified by any nationally recognized organization; they were trained
Federal investigations of police misconduct: a multi-city comparison 473
only twice a year (NOPD policy required 8 hours of training per month); and officers
did not document canine deployment or captures, making oversight nearly impossible.
Dogs would frequently bite suspects and their handlers. In response, the DOJ
suspended this unit until appropriate standards could be met. In Chicago, DOJ officials
Bfound instances in which CPD officers used canines against children and conducted
no investigation to determine whether these uses of force were reasonable or
necessary^(Chicago, 45). And the Ferguson report condemned what appeared to be
malicious deployment: The FPD Bappears to use canines not to counter a physical
threat but to inflict punishment^(Ferguson, 33). Dogs were used primarily against low-
level offenders, in non-threatening situations, and against African Americans. It ap-
peared to DOJ that race might have played a role in Ferguson’s deployment of canines.
A troublesome finding in all reports was officers’retaliatory actions against citizens.
Detainment, arrest, and physical force were used in response to behavior that officers
deemed annoying or distasteful but posed no threat; to those who used language that
officers considered disrespectful or critical; to individuals who videotaped interactions
with officers; and to protesters. A significant number of incidents described in the
reports showed officers using force (including Tasers and canines) against individuals
who were already restrained, as a means of retaliation.
Retribution by officers was depicted as a deeply embedded practice. Individuals
who filed misconduct complaints were one targeted group. Community members
believed that it was commonly understood that filing a complaint would lead to
trouble from the police (cf. ). For instance, at a Vietnamese community
meeting in New Orleans, one respondent compared the police response in two
types of situations: BYour house gets burglarized and it may take 10, 12 hours [for]
the police to show up. You get a cop in trouble and you’ll see the whole force
here^(New Orleans, 38). Evidence also showed that CPD Bwho engage in force
against a civilian routinely file baseless police assault and battery charges against
victims and other witnesses to the misconduct^(Chicago, 79). For example, a
lieutenant falsely arrested a person for battery Bto cover up the officer’sabuseof
the plaintiff,^and a subsequent lawsuit was settled for $100,000 (Chicago, 79).
The reports acknowledged that even in cases where officers wrongfully or mali-
ciously used Tasers or other weapons, civilians were reluctant to report the
misconduct because they feared retaliation at the hands of officers. Residents
described instances of retribution in all four cities. DOJ cited the problem of
retaliation to show how internal oversight and accountability structures were
lacking and damaging to police-citizen relations.
The Chicago, Baltimore, and New Orleans’reports also examined problematic foot
and vehicle chases. While integral to crime control, pursuits can pose risks to
citizens as well as officers. Due to fatigue and/or adrenaline rushes, chases can
often lead to poor decision-making, use of excessive force, and reduced accuracy
when firing weapons. The reports document cases when officers gave chase, often
474 D’Souza A. et al.
without knowing much about the situation or whether a crime had been committed.
Incidents described in the reports illustrated officers’propensity to erratically or
recklessly deploy weapons during hot pursuits, often with disastrous consequences:
BThe act of fleeing alone was sufficient to trigger a pursuit ending in gunfire,
sometimes fatal^(Chicago, 25).
The Chicago report offered details about two types of foot-chase tactics that
seriously jeopardized officer safety: Bpartner-splitting^and Bjump outs.^Neither
tactic is a part of CPD training; it was learned on the job. BPartner-splitting,^as the
name implies, involves officers separating in an effort to pursue more suspects and/
or cover more territory. This practice can be risky, because it impedes effective
communication between officers and has been shown to increase the likelihood that
weapons will be deployed, potentially resulting in officers or bystanders being
caught in the crossfire. The Bjump out^involves plainclothes officers exiting
unmarked vehicles before descending on groups of unsuspecting individuals, often
with their weapons drawn. The group would often react by running away, with
officers in pursuit. As the Chicago report pointed out, it is often very difficult for
citizens living in high crime areas to ascertain the identity of individuals running
toward them, especially at night, and it is reasonable that their first instincts would
be to flee as opposed to waiting to find out if the approaching individuals were
officers. Moreover, this practice seems to increase the likelihood of assaults by
officers. For example,
two plainclothes [CPD] officers dressed in black and in unmarked vehicles
approached a man and his female passenger as they were getting into their car.
According to the woman, the couple did not know [that the approaching men]
were officers and fled, and an officer shot at the side and rear of the vehicle,
killing the man. (Chicago, 31)
While the Chicago report went into the most depth regarding risky chases, they were
criticized in Baltimore and New Orleans as well, where they caused injuries or death.
The reports stressed the need for officers to more thoughtfully assess the seriousness
and dangerousness of situations and to consider alternatives if possible.
Citizens are not equally susceptible to excessive force. In Baltimore, individuals in
police custody who were being transported to a police station were especially
vulnerable, as illustrated by the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in a
police van. BPD officers sometimes refer to their transfer of suspects as Brough
rides,^suggesting disregard for passenger safety . In response to the lack of
transportation data collected by BPD, DOJ conducted an anonymous poll of recent
arrestees, and found that 20% of those polled (60 out of 298) had been unsecured
for at least a portion of the trip to Central Booking. Several respondents reported
that they had hit their heads, necks, or backs during their rough ride. In addition,
DOJ researchers found that in-vehicle cameras either did not work or were not
enabled, seatbelts were broken, and padding was lacking in older vans –increasing
the likelihood of injuries.
Federal investigations of police misconduct: a multi-city comparison 475
Also disproportionately vulnerable to police use of force were blacks and the
mentally ill. Regarding African Americans:
&in Baltimore they accounted for 88% of the persons subjected to non-deadly force
in more than 800 cases reviewed;
&in Ferguson they represented 90% of force recipients and all situations where
canines were used;
&in Chicago officers used force almost 10 times more often against blacks than
whites. Between January 2011 and April 2016, blacks were the Bsubject of 80% of
all CPD firearm uses and 81% of all Taser contact-stun uses^(Chicago, 145); and
&in New Orleans, black citizens accounted for 84% of all recorded use-of-force
incidents between January 2009 to May 2010; officers used deadly force 27 times
during this period and all victims were black.
What is particularly striking here is the high percentage across the four cities (80–
90%), despite differences in their African American composition and in the racial
complexion of the police department (see Table 1).
Reports often highlighted officers’use of suspect race in their decisions to use force.
In Ferguson for example, Brecords suggest that, where a suspect or group of suspects is
white, FPD applies a different calculus, typically resulting in a more measured law
enforcement response^(Ferguson, 78). While the Ferguson report stood out in its
indictment of a Bdifferent calculus^based on race, the other reports also documented
patterns of both explicit and implicit racism among officers.
Police treatment of the mentally ill is a problem across the country, so it is not
surprising that it was also an issue in our cities. In our cities, officers were often ill-
trained in proper intervention strategies with the mentally ill, relying instead on
physical force and weapons, and they seemed to disregard the need to assess an
individual’s mental health prior to deploying force. When an individual was resistant
or unreceptive, the reports described officers making little or no effort to de-escalate
and peacefully resolve the situation. The police response was akin to other situations
when suspects fail to listen to officers’directives, B[t]he only difference is that the final
destination [is] an emergency room, rather than jail^(Baltimore, page 83). It should be
noted that many calls for assistance in these cases were from family members, friends,
or concerned citizens, not a result of an individual’s criminal offense.
DOJ linked the problems discussed above to two related problems: insufficient
accountability and adverse effects on police-community relations. We consider each
of these in the remainder of the paper.
One analyst notes that Bnearly all consent decrees mandate improving civilian com-
plaint, investigation, and disciplinary mechanisms^(: 619). Accountability was a
major issue in our four reports as well. Officers who improperly used force against
civilians were rarely sanctioned, even when another officer reported such abuse. As one
Racial disparities in use of forcewas less of a focus in the New Orleans report than in the other three reports.
476 D’Souza A. et al.
CPD sergeant remarked, Bif someone comes forward as a whistleblower in the Depart-
ment, they are dead on the street^(Chicago, 75). In line with this understanding,
officers routinely discussed the importance of keeping quiet when they witnessed
misconduct by other officers (the Bcode of silence^), as they were fearful of repercus-
sions should they come forward –a concern shared by officers nationwide.
In our four cases, the code of silence and fear of retaliation was most heavily
discussed in the Baltimore and Chicago reports. In one instance, in response to
exposing departmental misconduct, a Baltimore detective revealed that his fellow
officers had called him a Brat,^left pictures of cheese on his desk, placed a dead rat
on his car windshield, and failed to respond to his request for backup on two occasions.
He was denied a transfer to another squad, and later resigned. While this example might
appear extreme, officers routinely spoke about the trouble they expected if they
informed on other officers (Baltimore, 152). Generally, this included verbal abuse,
denial of promotions or overtime, and poor performance reviews. Retaliation was
therefore used against civilians and police alike.
Similarly, officers were seldom held accountable when citizens lodged formal
complaints against them. In Ferguson, officers and commanders seemed to take a
blame-the-victim approach: they Boften seek to frame complaints as being entirely
related to complainants’guilt or innocence, and therefore not subject to a misconduct
FPD appears to intentionally not treat allegations of misconduct as complaints even
where it believes that the officer in fact committed the misconduct. . . . Even where a
complaint is actually investigated, unless the complaint is made by an FPD com-
mander, and sometimes not even then, FPD consistently takes the word of the officer
over the word of the complainant, frequently even where the officer’s version of
events is clearly at odds with the objective evidence. On the rare occasion that FPD
Table 1 Selected city characteristics
Baltimore Chicago Ferguson New Orleans
Racial composition of city (%)
White 30 32 31 34
Black 63 31 66 60
Hispanic 5 29 1 6
Racial composition of police department (%)
White 51 56 83 39
Black 40 25 11 58
Hispanic 7 19 4 2
Sources: U.S. Census, 2014 American Community Study. Figures on police department composition are from
Bureau of Justice Statistics, Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, 2013 survey, as
reported in Governing,September2015
A national poll of police officers reported that one-quarter believed that whistle blowing Bis not worth it^
and two-thirds said that an officer who reports another officer’s misconduct would likely get Bthe cold
shoulder^by other officers .
Federal investigations of police misconduct: a multi-city comparison 477
does sustain an external complaint of officer misconduct, the discipline it imposes is
generally too low to be an effective deterrent. (Ferguson, 84–85)
Likewise, NOPD’s complaint system
render NOPD’s system for investigating and responding to allegations of officer
misconduct ineffective at changing officer behavior or holding officers responsi-
ble for their actions. Consequently, the system has little legitimacy in the Depart-
ment or in the broader New Orleans community. (New Orleans, xvii-xviii)
In documenting the problems discussed above, DOJ emphasized how they contribute to
residents’estrangement from the police. The concluding chapters of the Baltimore,
Chicago, and Ferguson reports are dedicated to departmental failures regarding com-
munity engagement, and the New Orleans report highlights the need for civilian
oversight of the NOPD. Sweeping indictments were offered, illustrated by the conclusion
that NOPD’sBpolicies, training, and tactics support neither a community policing orien-
tation, nor the ultimate goal of proactively addressing problems^that give rise to crime
(New Orleans, xviii). The reports described the kinds of policies and practices that
exacerbate tensions. For instance, DOJ demanded that the CPD abandon their dangerous
and coercive Bguns for freedom^practice –a tactic where officers refuse to release an
individual until he/she provides information about weapon locations or drug or gang
operations. DOJ’s investigation also confirmed widespread reports of CPD officers taking
Ba young person to a rival gang neighborhood and either leave the person there or display
the youth to rival members, immediately putting the life of that young person in jeopardy
by suggesting he has provided information to the police^(Chicago, 148).
officers used obtrusive tactics (e.g., stop-and-frisk, Bclearing corners^) that were both
ineffective and undermined police legitimacy in the communities subjected to them.
DOJ highlighted community alienation in all four cities. Ferguson’sdepartmentwas
portrayed as follows:
patterns of unnecessarily aggressive and at times unlawful policing; reinforces the
harm of discriminatory stereotypes; discourages a culture of accountability; and
neglects community engagement. In recent years, FPD has moved away from the
modest community policing efforts it previously had implemented, reducing
opportunities for positive police-community interactions, and losing the little
familiarity it had with some African-American neighborhoods. (Ferguson, 5–6)
Interviews suggested that many residents were reluctant to cooperate with the police
due to distrust (see also ). Unlike Chicago’s white neighborhoods, many residents
of disadvantaged minority communities complained to DOJ investigators about
This practice is also documented in some other cities: e.g., St. Louis .
478 D’Souza A. et al.
oppressive police practices: Bmany residents in those neighborhoods feel, as we were
told often in conversations with community members, as if CPD is an occupying
force^; officers treated the neighborhood as if it is Ban open-air prison^(quoting one
resident); and young blacks Btold us they are commonly stopped and suspected of
engaging in criminal activity, or of being gang members, based solely on their
appearance^(Chicago, 143). Latino residents voiced similar complaints. In Baltimore,
DOJ concluded that Bdiscretionary enforcement actions increase distrust and signifi-
cantly decrease the likelihood that individuals will cooperate with the police to solve or
prevent other crimes.. ..^(Baltimore, 158). And Bone of the fundamental causes of the
breakdown in the relationship between the Department and the community it serves is
that. .. community policing practices are not being implemented^(Baltimore, 158).
Characterizing the situation as a Bbreakdown^in police-community relations suggests
that the situation could not be worse.
Federal investigations of police departments often focus on one troubled law enforce-
ment agency at a time, and are inherently limited in whether their findings are
department-specific or more broadly applicable across American police departments.
Our content analysis of four recent investigative reports by DOJ contributes to the
growing body of scholarship on police misconduct by highlighting important similar-
ities as well as differences across the cases regarding a wide range of policing problems.
Table 2summarizes some of the main similarities and differences.
Across the four cities, DOJ found that officers routinely conducted unconstitutional
or unjustified stops, searches, and arrests. Ferguson officers were often unable to
articulate a legal justification for stopping citizens, and Baltimore officers engaged in
dubious Bstreet-clearing^operations as well as repeated use of unwarranted stops and
intrusive physical searches. Similarly imprudent practices were observed in Chicago,
i.e., partner-splitting and jump outs.
Investigators attributed officers’unlawful stop, search, and arrest practices to (1) key
departmental policies and (2) glaring deficiencies in training and oversight. The reports
associated the widespread use of aggressive tactics with crime-control policies that
incentivized officers but also damaged police-community relations. Officers appeared
disposed to use force rather than employing de-escalation techniques, including with
mentally ill persons. Regarding training, New Orleans’officers received little post-
academy instruction, and in Baltimore department trainers unwittingly provided offi-
cers with erroneous information regarding current legal standards. In addition to the
problem of lax oversight generally, citizens’complaints were mishandled, downgraded,
and rarely sustained.
Race figured prominently in these reports. In addition to African Americans repeat-
edly finding themselves on the receiving end of unwelcome stops, the reports demon-
strate that officers frequently subjected them to verbal abuse as well. Investigators
found that officers’use of racially-charged language and crude jokes created a culture
where blacks were dehumanized. DOJ’s findings in our four cities are therefore entirely
consistent with decades of scholarly research on police relations with minority groups
in other American cities (e.g., [2,41]).
Federal investigations of police misconduct: a multi-city comparison 479
Table 2 Major themes, by city
Baltimore Chicago Ferguson New Orleans
Stops, searches, and arrests
Constitutional rights violations Constitutional rights violations Constitutional rights violations Constitutional rights violations
Zero-tolerance policing Revenue-driven policing Zero-tolerance policing
Racial disparities Racial disparities Racial disparities Racial disparities
Language and verbal abuse
Racial epithets Racial epithets Racial epithets Racial epithets
Lack of discipline for racial slurs Lack of discipline for racial slurs Lack of discipline for racial slurs Lack of discipline for racial slurs
Mishandling of sexual assault cases Mishandling of sexual assault &
domestic abuse cases
Failure to investigate sex worker
Mistreatment of transgendered individuals Mistreatment of transgendered individuals Mistreatment of transgendered individuals
Failure to provide services to residents with
limited English proficiency
Failure to de-escalate Failure to de-escalate Failure to de-escalate Failure to de-escalate
Unrestrained canine use Unrestrained canine use
Overreliance & inappropriate use of
Overreliance & inappropriate use of
Overreliance & inappropriate use of
Overreliance & inappropriate use of
Racial disparities Racial disparities Racial disparities Racial disparities
Tactically risky or unnecessary pursuits Tactically risky or unnecessary pursuits
Faulty reporting of use- of-force incidents Faulty reporting of use- of-force incidents Faulty reporting of use- of-force incidents Faulty reporting of use- of-force incidents
Insufficient accountability Insufficient accountability Insufficient accountability Insufficient accountability
480 D’Souza A. et al.
DOJ investigators also criticized core department policies. Zero-tolerance in Balti-
more and New Orleans and policing-for-profit in Ferguson were identified as major
sources of police-community estrangement. The reports also assailed not only outdated
and unprofessional operating procedures but also a striking pattern of officer and
supervisor violation of official policies. The New Orleans report targeted both:
In every area we reviewed, we found that NOPD policies do not provide
sufficient guidance. Policies are outdated, inconsistent, and at times, legally
inaccurate. . . . There is a general lack of adherence to policy, exacerbated by
pervasive tolerance by NOPD supervisors and commanders for officers’routine
failure to comply with policy. (New Orleans, xiii)
Our examination of four reports, albeit major ones, obviously limits our ability to
generalize to other police departments. Nonetheless, because the DOJ has stated that it
investigates beleaguered departments facing challenges shared by multiple law enforce-
ment agencies (DOJ, ), their evaluations and recommended reforms are intended to
have broad relevance. While some documented problems were specific to a particular city,
we also found important similarities across the four cities –patterns that are also reflected
in studies of other major cities in the United States (e.g., [3,12,14,31,39]).
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Amanda D’Souza is a PhD student in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. Her research
interests are community development, policing, and social justice.
Ronald Weitzer is Professor of Sociology at George Washington University. He has researched policing in
Israel, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the United States. Among his many publications on policing are his
coauthored book Race and Policing in America and his earlier book Policing Under Fire: Ethnic Conflict and
Police-Community Relations in Northern Ireland.
Rod K. Brunson is Professor and Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. His research
examines youths’experiences in neighborhood contexts, with a specific focus on the interactions of race, class,
and gender, and their relationship to criminal justice practices. His work appears in the British Journal of
Criminology, Criminology, Criminology & Public Policy, Evaluation Review, and Urban Affairs Review.
482 D’Souza A. et al.