Minneapolis Police consent decrees — buckle up for a long, unproductive ride

Minneapolis officials announced last week that a monitor had been selected to manage the consent decrees the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) will go through with both the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (DHR). The focus of the decrees is on issues of “unconstitutional policing.”

The Monitor

Effective Law Enforcement for All (ELEFA) was selected from a group of nearly 20 applicants and a contract is expected to be approved by the City Council on March 9. ELEFA is reportedly eligible to receive $1.5 million/year.

The co-leaders of the MPD monitoring group will be ELEFA President David Douglass, and a new ELEFA addition, Michael Harrison. Douglass, an attorney, has been the appointed deputy monitor of the New Orleans Police Department consent decree since 2013. Harrison is a retired police chief in both New Orleans 2014-2019, and Baltimore 2019-2023, where he oversaw the DOJ consent decrees applied to both departments.

From its website, it appears ELEFA was formed as a non-profit in 2021 and lists its partner as Douglass’s law firm Sheppard-Mullin. ELEFA has offices in Louisiana and Maryland.

The ELEFA website lists among its services “Reinventing the Law Enforcement Mission” and “Transforming Police Departments.” One would hope that given the experience Douglass and Harrison have with New Orleans and Baltimore PD’s consent decrees, there would be ample proof that such oversight has been positive and productive.

That hope is quickly dashed with a little research. Unfortunately, the experiences in New Orleans and Baltimore are likely to be the experiences in Minneapolis over the coming decade. Buckle up for a long, painful, and unproductive ride.

New Orleans Consent Decree

The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has been the subject of a DOJ consent decree since 2012, with no definite end in sight. It was also initiated due to allegations of “unconstitutional policing.”

The process has carried on so long, and so contentiously in New Orleans that in 2022, the city brought a lawsuit against the federal judge overseeing the consent decree to have it terminated.

In the suit, the City of New Orleans contends the consent decree process has turned into a series of “ever-shifting goals.” The city described these ever-shifting goals as:

“Seemingly easy, but equally vague and subjective. In contrast, the non-public creeping to-do list “compliance tracker” spreadsheet was hundreds of lines long and ever-growing. The demands upon NOPD in that spreadsheet included newly added tasks every week, many outside the scope of the Decree. This unsanctioned process has made compliance with the Decree drastically more onerous for the City and generated uncertainty as to how to emerge, if ever.”

The Mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, a Democrat, has been blunt in her criticism of the consent decree:

“The consent decree handcuffs our officers by making their jobs harder, pestering them with punitive punishment and burying them with paperwork that is an overburden.”

Republican Governor of Louisiana Jeff Landry has also been critical of the NOPD consent decree blaming it for turning the New Orleans police department into a “shambles.” 

During this process of an endless consent decree, the NOPD has been devastated. The staffing crisis that resulted has been described as catastrophic and as of 2023, the NOPD fell below 900 officers for the first time since 1947.

Baltimore Consent Decree

Following the in custody death of Freddy Gray, the DOJ initiated a consent decree on the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) in 2017, also citing “unconstitutional policing.” Harrison stepped in as Chief in 2019, from the NOPD, and oversaw the implementation of the consent decree through June of 2023 before resigning.

The BPD has become yet another large police agency experiencing a major staffing crisis while subjected to a consent decree. According to the Fraternal Order of Police, in 2023:

“This regime, at the BPD, is in full survival mode due to a net loss of over 300 police officers under PC Harrison’s watch. Crime is still out of control, as one would expect from there being no plan to address violent crime, for the past 4 years, and an exodus of officers.”

Just recently the BPD announced that to date it had successfully completed just 5% of the milestones laid out in the consent decree — 1) solidifying responses to officer assistance and support and 2) ensuring the safe transport of people in custody. Look for the BPD consent decree to drag on for a decade or more.

If that sounds outrageous, consider that the City of Baltimore’s Department of Social Services has been under constant federal consent decree for over 30 years.

Lessons Learned

The experiences of the NOPD and BPD are not unique. It’s common for consent decrees to become unwieldy and extend well beyond the stated durations and goals. KSTP 5 reported in 2023 that the average length of a DOJ police consent decree stands at 9 ½ years. 

Consent decrees have developed into an industry with little or no governance. The monitors garner lucrative contracts and as such the industry has become destructively dependent on ensuring its work continues.

The DOJ during the Trump administration properly curtailed the use of consent decrees on law enforcement agencies. That policy was rescinded in 2021 under the Biden administration.

Far too often, whether consent decrees are in place or not, perceptions and complaints from activists and others in the public remain largely unchanged.

Perhaps a closer, more critical look at the legitimacy of those perceptions and complaints makes more sense than spending tens of millions of dollars in a decade long initiative to “reimagine policing.” 

Reimagining society, and reestablishing cultural norms, and decency would seem to be better use of our time and resources.