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Federal Intervention in Local Policing: Pittsburgh’s Experience with a Consent Decree

NCJ Number
Robert C. Davis; Nicole J. Henderson; Janet Mandelstam; Christopher W. Ortiz; Joel Miller
Date Published
October 2006
52 pages
This report describes lessons learned from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s experience with a Federal Consent Decree.
The overarching research questions asked: Can a reform process imposed by the Federal Government succeed? And can reforms remain in place after the Federal process has been completed? Evidence indicates that the answer to both questions is yes. The requirements of the U.S. Government’s consent decree significantly changed the police culture in Pittsburgh and the reforms were instituted and sustained even in the face of initial resistance to the consent decree. Lessons learned from the experience include the importance of a unified response to the decree by city officials; the importance of the police chief adopting the decree as part of their own reform agenda; and the central role of the monitor. Factors that increased the success of the Pittsburgh experience are also identified, such as greater efforts to gain rank and file buy-in to the reform process and a quicker realization of the new demands on investigating civilian complaints. Unintended consequences of the consent decree process included a decline in police officer morale. In 1997, Pittsburgh became the first city to enter into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice due to police misconduct problems. Data were drawn from two research projects developed by the Vera Institute of Justice to evaluate the impact of the consent decree process on the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. Research methods included site visits during year 5 of the decree process and 6 months following the completion of the reform process, which involved interviews with key stakeholders; focus groups with police officers; an examination of police activity, public safety, discipline, and morale data; and an opinion survey of 400 citizens. The report also details the specific changes implemented under the decree, such as an early warning system and particular changes in the use of force and traffic stop policies, among others.