Texas A&M, Tarleton State Co-host Nation’s First Consent Decree Conference

November 27, 2016

tamulaw and tarleton consent decreeWhen Texas A&M Law Professor Lynne Rambo and Dr. Alex del Carmen of Tarleton State University first discussed hosting a consent decree conference, their hope was to foster conversation in frank, forward-looking terms.

“The idea was for the parties to share their perspectives and experiences so that the consent decree process might go more smoothly and be more effective,” Rambo said.

Doing so effectively would require bringing together all the parties involved in consent decrees – no small task. On Nov. 4-5, more than 150 of them – from the Department of Justice attorneys who investigate and then negotiate these decrees to the police chiefs who are subject to them, from the monitors who determine police compliance to the judges themselves – attended the two-day conference, “Implementation of Police Department Consent Decrees: Working Together Toward Institutional Change.”

consent decreeJudge Solomon Oliver (Chief Judge, US District Court Northern District of Ohio), Judge James Robart (US District Court Western District of Washington), Judge Susie Morgan (US District Court Eastern District of Louisiana), DOJ Principle Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, Judge Curtis Gomez (US District Court of the Virgin Islands) and Judge Gustavo Gelpi (US District Court of Puerto Rico).

With representation from Albuquerque, Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson (Missouri), Maricopa County (Arizona), New Orleans, Newark, Puerto Rico, Seattle, and the Virgin Islands, conference participants engaged in candid discussion, sharing not only their own lessons learned but also ideas to improve the process.

The idea of bringing past and present participants together to exchange ideas grew out of the New Orleans Police Department Consent Decree case. New Orleans-based Federal District Judge Susie Morgan related that she drew the case almost immediately after she came on the bench, and that handling it has been “a life-changing experience.” She and Dr. del Carmen, who was serving at the time as a monitor in New Orleans, decided that everyone would benefit from hearing what was happening in other courts, with other consent decrees.

“This conference has led to the beginning of a conversation among federal judges, federal monitors, police chiefs, and the Department of Justice, which will likely result in historical consequences and positively affect communities across the United States,” said del Carmen.

“Everyone knew this type of conference had never been held, but had great potential,” Rambo said. “And so the conference became a conversation, with some differences of opinion, but no conflict.”

Recent events have brought the concept of police consent decrees into the national dialogue, making this conference as timely as it is relevant.

Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the DOJ has authority to investigate, and if necessary bring suit, whenever there is reason to believe a local police department has engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct. 

Acting under this authority, the DOJ has investigated hundreds of police forces and brought suit against more than 60 of them. In virtually every case the DOJ and the city involved have entered into a consent decree of several years’ length, to be supervised by a court-appointed federal monitor.

Beyond the two-day conference, organizers said they hoped the event would lead to more frequent dialogue about the issue, including best practices. For their part, organizers have committed to holding the event each year.

“The consent decree process makes constructive solutions possible, and that is especially important to bridging the divide between the police and the community,” Rambo said.

consent decree groupThe ​nation's first consent decree conference, “Implementation of Police Department Consent Decrees: Working Together Toward Institutional Change," co-sponsored by Texas A&M University School of Law and Tarleton State University, brought together attorneys from the DOJ, monitors, police chiefs and judges from across the country.