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by Peter Moskos

August 11, 2016

A pattern of abuse?

Today, no police department should be surprised by what the Department of Justice is looking for,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which has extensively studied such investigations.
I'm not a lawyer and don't think like one, so I'm a bit slow in realizing how the DOJ goes about its business. It's not enough for them to say "there are problems and here's what needs to be done." The goal is a consent decree (in this case one that shifts blame to long-gone mayor from over a decade ago), and this is a necessary precondition. The DOJ has a kind of template for this report:

Provide anecdotes of bad policing. (Some of these will be true.)

Highlight worst practices.

Throw in some (dubious) statistical analysis to "prove" racism about use of force, bias, or unlawful searches and seizures.

And voila! A "pattern" of "unconstitutional" and racist policing. Here's one critique of this business from Matthew Hickman, a professor and former DOJ statistician, about their 2012 Seattle report:
The Department of Justice investigation of the Seattle Police Department was launched over concerns about eroding public trust and confidence in the Seattle police, but I am far more concerned about whether DOJ deserves our trust and confidence. The public release of DOJ’s report highlighted two empirical findings that stretch credibility beyond its limits, and DOJ is presently trying to force the city to institute reforms without DOJ revealing the methods that produced its findings. If Seattle does not push back, DOJ will end up causing more harm than good.
I’m frankly shocked that DOJ went public with such a ridiculous statistic; it’s totally inconsistent with the available research literature on police use of force, and stands in defiance of reason. I can only conclude that DOJ had no other goal than to incite the public and build popular support for a baseless political cause.
If they had invested in collecting these data on a systematic basis, they would have the larger context that might make their “pattern or practice” investigations more meaningful. As a consequence, we simply don’t know if Seattle’s data are “too high,” “too low,” or “just right.”
In sum, there are legitimate questions about the quality of DOJ’s analyses here in Seattle as well as the expertise of those who produced them. As of this writing, DOJ has failed to provide the details of its methodology. It is doing so in hopes that Seattle will voluntarily enter into a costly consent decree without questioning DOJ’s highly questionable findings.

Yet there is ample evidence that DOJ has built a house of cards in support of a political agenda. The empirical findings of its investigation simply don’t pass the “smell test” and will not stand up to legal or scientific scrutiny. The city of Seattle should call DOJ’s bluff, and settle for nothing less than a formal apology.
And when an agency did call the DOJ's bluff, the DOJ lost.

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