NEW YORK — When Justice Department officials announced the results of a two-year investigation into civil rights violations at the Miami Police Department this month, it was the 11th time in two years that the federal government had put a local law enforcement agency on notice that it must change its ways or face a federal lawsuit.
Cities from New Orleans and Seattle to Missoula, Mont., and East Haven, Conn., are grappling with similar federally mandated changes after investigations into their police departments.
In Miami, the Justice Department found a pattern of the use of excessive force — in an eight-month period in 2011, eight young black men were shot and killed by the police.
This month, the Justice Department announced a sweeping settlement forcing Puerto Rico to change 11 areas of policing, including the use of excessive force, searches, stops and the handling of domestic violence. It was, the department said, “among the most extensive agreements ever obtained.”
Civil rights violations by police departments have been subject to investigation by the federal government since 1994, when Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. But federal intervention has become far more common and much broader in scope under the Obama administration, a development proudly highlighted on the Justice Department’s website.
During Obama’s first term, the department initiated 15 investigations into troubled law enforcement agencies, almost twice the number carried out in the last four years of the Bush administration.
While early investigations focused narrowly on the use of excessive force and racial profiling, recent inquiries have taken on a host of other issues, including the treatment of the mentally ill, the handling of sexual assault cases, and unconscious bias on the part of police officers.
Last year, the department extended its purview further, announcing its intention to investigate a district attorney’s office over the handling of sexual assault cases. The Missoula County attorney, Fred Van Valkenburg, has so far declined to cooperate, arguing that under state law, the Justice Department has no standing to investigate his office.
“In my mind, these people have never run into somebody who told them ‘no,’ ” Van Valkenburg told an audience at a City Club Missoula luncheon in June. The National District Attorneys Association has sent a letter objecting to the investigation to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Civil rights lawyers and criminal justice experts have hailed the Justice Department’s increased activism.
“Justice Department litigation has really set a national standard,” said Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and the author of “The New World of Police Accountability.” He said the investigations — and the resulting settlements, known as consent decrees — sent a message to police departments that “there are some minimal things you have to do to be professional, and here are the things you need to do in order to achieve that.”
And some police officials whose departments have been the target of Justice Department investigators say the consent decree that resulted was beneficial. “I think they’re extremely effective,” said Robert McNeilly, a former chief of the Pittsburgh Police Department, the first agency to enter into a consent decree after the 1994 law was passed.
To comply with the decree, the department increased accountability and increased training. Among other things, it instituted an early warning system to identify officers who were at high risk of using excessive force.
But the federal intervention has also caused frustration among some police chiefs, who say the government should work to find a cheaper and more efficient process. Consent decrees, they say, can drag on for years and impose huge cost burdens on cities that are least able to afford them.
In Detroit, which declared bankruptcy July 18, a consent decree imposed to correct a range of serious problems including the use of excessive force, false arrest, illegal detention, and failures in investigation and training is in its 11th year.
In New Orleans, city officials asked the Justice Department to come in but are now contesting the consent decree, saying its measures are too expensive to carry out.
“We don’t disagree with the objectives at all,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization based in Washington that conducts research on policing and recently issued a report on federal civil rights investigations into police departments. “What we find issue with is the mechanics of the process.”