As calls for comprehensive police reform take front and center in the national conversation, policymakers may have concerns about whether such changes would lead to an increase in the incidence of violent crime, based on academic literature that supports a negative relationship between violent crime and the number of police officers. To assess the relationship between comprehensive police reform and violent crime, this column examines violent crime rates over time in jurisdictions where the police department fulfilled a reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division (the division). This analysis relies on estimates of violent crime rates from the FBI’s “Crime in the United States” publications spanning from 1995 to 2019. The compiled data cover the entire timeline within which the agreements were reached and fulfilled. These agreements emphasized institutional reforms to address systemic police misconduct—as opposed to isolated instances of wrongdoing—and as such, serve as appropriate benchmarks for the type of comprehensive police reform advocates are calling for today.
The data show that in the years following these agreements, violent crime rates declined in all 10 of the analyzed jurisdictions, following the national trend. This analysis undermines potential concerns that comprehensive police reform would increase violent crime and lends additional support to efforts to implement such reforms.
Background on Section 14141
In 1994, Congress authorized the U.S. attorney general to investigate and litigate patterns or practices of police conduct that violates federal law, following an independent commission’s finding that linked the beating of Rodney King to institutional failure within the Los Angeles Police Department. The resulting section of the U.S. Code, 42 U.S.C. § 14141, grants the division the authority to obtain a court order requiring state or local law enforcement agencies to address systemic police misconduct that violates rights protected by the U.S. Constitution or other federal laws, such as the rights to be free from excessive force; unreasonable stops and searches; arrests without warrants or sufficient cause, or in retaliation for exercising free speech; and discrimination based on factors such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, and sex—including sexual orientation, gender identity, and LGBTQ status.
The Special Litigation Section of the division resolves pattern-or-practice cases—or “14141 cases”—by investigating allegations of systemic police misconduct and negotiating comprehensive agreements to “support constitutional and effective policing and restore trust between police and communities.” These reform agreements typically take the form of a federal-court-enforceable “consent decree” and an independent monitoring team appointed by the court, both of which are negotiated and agreed upon by the division and the law enforcement agency that is being investigated. When the court determines that the agency has met and sustained the requirements of the reform agreement, it terminates the consent decree. The division may also negotiate with the agency to enter into a “memorandum of agreement”—enforceable in federal court as a contract between the two parties—when there is significant evidence that the agency has the capacity to accomplish and sustain reform in a timely manner without ongoing court oversight.
Findings and figures
In the Center for American Progress’ analysis of violent crime rates over time in 10 jurisdictions where the police departments fulfilled a reform agreement with the division, four of these agreements were consent decrees and six were memoranda of agreement.
If the consent decree or memorandum of agreement led to an increase in violent crime in any of the 10 jurisdictions, then one would expect to observe an adverse trend in the violent crime rate in that jurisdiction, accounting for any national movements. In particular, if the rate had been decreasing pre-agreement, then one would expect it to either increase, remain constant, or decrease at a slower pace post-agreement. If the rate had been increasing pre-agreement, on the other hand, then one would expect it to increase at a faster pace post-agreement. If the rate had been constant or fluctuating slightly pre-agreement, then one would expect it to increase post-agreement. As demonstrated in the charts below, however, the pre- and post-agreement rates in all 10 jurisdictions either exhibited trends that were the opposite of the scenarios above or that followed the national trend. In fact, violent crime rates declined in all 10 jurisdictions post-agreement, following the national trend. This evidence shows that comprehensive police reforms are associated with less violent crime, not more.
In all four jurisdictions where the police departments fulfilled a consent decree with the division, the pre- and post-agreement rates followed the national trend. In Pittsburgh, for example, the rate followed an upward national trend from 1995 to 1997, the year in which the consent decree entered into force. Since 2002, the year in which the consent decree was terminated, the rate followed a downward national trend for more than 15 years. Although Pittsburgh’s rate increased during the agreement while the national rate decreased, such a divergence does not affect one’s understanding of the impact of comprehensive police reform, since the uptick occurred before the reforms were fully implemented. According to the division, patterns or practices of police misconduct are usually “the product[s] of many decades of dysfunction,” and meaningful and sustainable police reform requires “substantial time” to take hold.
In Easton, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., where the police departments fulfilled a memorandum of agreement, the pre- and post-agreement rates also followed the national trend. The other four jurisdictions exhibited trends opposite of what one would expect if comprehensive police reform increased violent crime. In Beacon, New York, the rate had been fluctuating slightly pre-agreement but decreased slightly post-agreement. In Montgomery County, Maryland, and Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, the rates had been increasing pre-agreement but decreased post-agreement.
The relationship between comprehensive police reform and the incidence of violent crime is an important consideration for policymakers, who must weigh the reasons for such reforms against concerns for public safety. As such, this column analyzes violent crime rates over time in 10 jurisdictions where the police department fulfilled a reform agreement with the division following a pattern-or-practice investigation of systemic police misconduct. The findings should quell concerns that comprehensive police reform would increase violent crime and support efforts to implement such reforms.
Kenny Lo is a research associate for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. Sarah Figgatt is a research assistant for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center.
From 1994 to 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division entered into a total of 20 consent decrees and 20 memoranda of agreement. Fourteen of the former and six of the latter are excluded from the analysis because they are still in effect, so post-agreement violent crime rates in their respective jurisdictions are not observable. Moreover, two of the remaining six consent decrees and four of the remaining 14 memoranda of agreement are excluded because FBI data on pre-agreement violent crime rates are missing. Lastly, four of the remaining 10 memoranda of agreement focus on a specific area of policing practice such as the use of tasers or chemical agent propellant sprays and the handling of sexual assault complaints. Because this column aims to evaluate the impact of comprehensive police reform on the incidence of violent crime, these agreements—albeit important and significant—are relatively limited in scope and thereby excluded.
The four consent decrees that remain are with the Pittsburgh Police Bureau (1997–2002); the New Jersey State Police (1999–2009); the Los Angeles Police Department (2000–2009); and the Detroit Police Department (2003–2014). The six memoranda of agreement that remain are with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. (2001–2008); the Columbus Police Department (2002–2004) and Cincinnati Police Department (2002–2008) in Ohio; the Easton Police Department in Pennsylvania (2010–2015); the Beacon Police Department in New York (2010–2016); and the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland (2003–2005).