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Home > Research & Publications > Measuring the Performance of Criminal Justice Systems > Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree
Christopher Stone, Todd Foglesong, Christine M. Cole | May 18, 2009
The Los Angeles Police Department is completing one of the most ambitious experiments in police reform ever attempted in an American city. After a decade of policing crises that began with the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and culminated in the Rampart police corruption scandal in 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in May 2000 that it had accumulated enough evidence to sue the City of Los Angeles over a pattern-and-practice of police misconduct. Later that year, the city government entered a "consent decree" promising to adopt scores of reform measures under the supervision of the Federal Court.
The experiment in police reform in Los Angeles has two components: the consent decree produced by the Justice Department’s intervention, and the leadership of Chief William Bratton, who since 2002 has focused the Department’s attention simultaneously on reducing crime, improving morale, and complying fully with the consent decree. What has the experience in Los Angeles revealed about policing under a consent decree? Has the consent decree achieved its purpose? How is the Los Angeles Police Department controlling its use of force; what is the state of police-community relations; how rigorous is the governance and oversight of the LAPD; and how is the culture of the Department changing? Most important, as the LAPD has incorporated the policies and practices specified in the consent decree into its own operations and management, has the Department won the public’s trust and confidence while reducing crime and bringing offenders to justice?
To answer those questions, the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School examined the LAPD using multiple research methods. We undertook hundreds of hours of participant observation from patrol to the command staff; we analyzed administrative data on crime, arrests, stops, civilian complaints, police personnel, and the use of force. We compiled surveys conducted over the last decade of police officers and residents of Los Angeles, and then conducted three surveys of our own, one of residents, another of LAPD officers, and a third of detainees recently arrested by the LAPD. Finally, we conducted a series of formal focus groups and structured interviews with police officers, public officials, and residents of Los Angeles.
While some questions remain unanswered, this ranks among the most comprehensive assessments ever conducted of a police department outside of a time of crisis. We found the LAPD much changed from eight years ago, and even more so in the last four or five years.