Structural Reform Litigation in American Police Departments

81 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2014 Last revised: 14 Sep 2015

See all articles by Stephen Rushin

Stephen Rushin

Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Date Written: 2015


In 1994, Congress passed 42 U.S.C. §14141, a statute authorizing the Attorney General to seek equitable relief against local and state police agencies that are engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional misconduct. Although police departments in some of the nation’s largest cities have now undergone this sort of structural reform litigation, there has been little empirical research on the topic. Drawing on original interviews, court documents, statistical data, and media reports, this Article describes the federal government’s use of structural reform litigation in American police departments and theorizes on its effectiveness. It argues that structural reform litigation is uniquely effective at combating misconduct in police departments. It forces local municipalities to prioritize investments into police misconduct regulations. It utilizes external monitoring to ensure that frontline officers substantively comply with top-down mandates. And it provides police executives with legal cover to implement wide-ranging reforms aimed at curbing misconduct. Although expensive, structural reform litigation may ultimately pay for itself through reducing a police department’s civil liability.

But structural reform litigation is far from a perfect regulatory mechanism. Successful organizational reform requires continual support from municipal leaders, dedication by executives within the targeted agency, and buy-in by frontline officers. This suggests that structural reform litigation alone is insufficient to transform a law enforcement agency. The financial burden of structural reform litigation falls on local police agencies over a relatively short period of time. Additional questions remain about whether targeted agencies will sustain reforms after federal intervention ends and about whether this type of federal intervention makes officers less aggressive. This Article concludes by showing how the lessons from structural reform litigation can inform future legal regulations of law enforcement.

Keywords: Policing, Police Reform, Structural Police Reform, Structural Reform Litigation, Civil Rights, Constitutional Rights, Police Misconduct, Courts, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure

Suggested Citation

Rushin, Stephen, Structural Reform Litigation in American Police Departments (2015). 99 Minnesota Law Review 1343 (2015), U of Alabama Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2414673, Available at SSRN:

Stephen Rushin (Contact Author)

Loyola University Chicago School of Law ( email )

25 E. Pearson
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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