Promoting Civil Rights Through Proactive Policing Reform
68 Pages Posted: 28 Nov 2009 Last revised: 1 Mar 2010
Date Written: November 28, 2009
Reducing police misconduct requires substantial institutional reform in our nation’s police departments. Yet traditional legal means for deterring misconduct, such as civil suits under § 1983 and the exclusionary rule, have proved inadequate to force departmental change. 42 U.S.C. § 14141 was passed in 1994 to allow the Justice Department to sue police departments to force institutional reform. Scholars initially hailed § 14141 as a powerful tool for reducing unconstitutional police abuse. The Justice Department, however, has sued few police departments. This Article contends that § 14141’s greatest potential has been overlooked. Limited resources will always mean that § 14141 can be used to force reform on only a limited number of police departments. But § 14141 could also be used to induce reform in many more. This goal requires a § 14141 litigation strategy designed to motivate proactive reform in more departments than the Justice Department can sue. The key components of this strategy are a “worst-first” litigation policy that prioritizes suits against police departments with the worst indicia of misconduct, and a policy that grants a “safe harbor” from suit for police departments that voluntarily adopt best practice reforms. This Article also explains why this proactive § 14141 enforcement strategy would be more efficient at reducing police misconduct than current enforcement policies, proposals to reform § 14141 by adding private plaintiffs, and alternative mechanisms by which the federal government could regulate police department reform.
Keywords: police misconduct, policing, 14141, structural reform litigation, Justice Department, civil rights, safe harbor, civil rights enforcement
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