Not so long ago, advocates for overhauling policing in Albuquerque, N.M., saw the Justice Department as their salvation.

"I never thought I'd see this day," Steve Torres told reporters when then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a historic agreement, called a consent decree, with the city in 2014. Albuquerque police had killed Torres's son, who suffered from schizophrenia, by shooting him three times in the back — one of 41 police shootings over a few years in the Southwest city that is home to just over a half-million residents. "Now we have to make sure they follow through," said Torres.

Nine years and an estimated $25 million later, the consent decree is still active, but some say they've lost faith that the process will lead to meaningful change. Last year, Albuquerque police shot a record-high 18 people.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the long-awaited results of a pattern or practice investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, prompted by the 2020 killing of George Floyd. Elected city leaders, many of whom campaigned on promises to rein in policing, lauded the findings, vowing to negotiate a consent decree that will serve as a roadmap to a new era.

A consent decree is one of the federal government's most aggressive tools for intervening in police departments it finds to be systemically violating the U.S. Constitution, like Minneapolis. With authority passed by Congress in response to the 1991 Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King, these settlement agreements are enforceable by the courts and overseen by a monitor.

Over the past three decades, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has negotiated consent decrees across America. With long-term and good faith buy-ins from key players, the agreements have proved in some cases to be effective in addressing systemic misconduct, according to experts who study them. But success can come with caveats. The process can take a decade or longer — Oakland is in year 20 — and cost tens of millions of dollars to taxpayers. And sometimes the changes don't stick.

Critics of agreements in places such as Albuquerque say their experiences serve as a cautionary tale as Minneapolis embarks on the same path they once embraced with optimism.

"The community feels like the exercise has been checking off boxes to comply, but without seeing any real results or change in culture," said New Mexico civil rights attorney Laura Schauer Ives.

"It's not a panacea."

Charges in Minneapolis

The charges presented by the Justice Department Friday portrayed a damning vision of the Minneapolis Police Department.

For years, police in Minnesota's largest city used "dangerous techniques and weapons" against people who committed petty offenses or none at all, according to the charges. Officers punished people with force who criticized or angered them. They patrolled, searched, detained, arrested and used force differently on communities based on racial demographics. In one case, an off-duty officer fired his gun at a car with six people inside within a few seconds of stepping out of his squad. In another, an officer in street clothes unholstered his gun and pinned down an unarmed teenager suspected of stealing a $5 burrito.

Police leadership and fellow officers also failed to intervene against those who engaged in misconduct, according to the charge. This included an officer who pulled over a group of Somali teens for no apparent reason and said he was "proud" of being racist.

"Do you remember what happened in 'Black Hawk Down' when we killed a bunch of you folk? I'm proud of that," said the officer, who is unnamed in the charges. "We didn't finish the job over there. ... If we had... you guys wouldn't be over here right now."

Garland cited this as a disturbing example of conduct that "erodes the community's trust in law enforcement."

Lessons from Pittsburgh

Garland said his department and city leaders have agreed in principle to begin negotiating a consent decree to resolve the charges, a laborious legal process that could take months or a year. Based on how these have played out in other cities, the agreement is expected to include mandates on new technology, such as an early-intervention system that flags problem officers. It likely will entail reforms centering on police use of force, traffic stops and the system for citizen complaints. Also on the table, could be an attempt to create a "problem-oriented" crime fighting strategy reliant on data and collaboration with the communities the police department is tasked with keeping safe.

A successful negotiation process will rely heavily on seeking input from the public, said Samuel Walker, a national policing expert and retired professor from the University of Nebraska's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

In the early days of consent decrees, Walker said the Justice Department didn't adequately bring the public into the process, such as in Pittsburgh, an example of "a disaster all the way around."

Pittsburgh was home to the first-ever consent decree, negotiated in 1997. The agreement produced early signs of success, but it did not last. In 2014, Police Chief Nathan Harper was sentenced to 18 months in prison after a blistering federal corruption investigation found he conspired to create an unauthorized slush fund — prompting the threat of yet another consent decree in the city.

Many see Detroit as a case study of how to fail to regain public's trust in the reform process. In 2011, the city sued to recoup $10 million spent on a federal monitor after revelations that she'd had an affair with the former mayor.

Walker said the Justice Department has learned from past mistakes, and he points to cities like Seattle and Newark as examples of successes.

The Justice Department moved to lift the decree in Seattle earlier this year after a monitor said the police department has fulfilled its obligations. From 2015 to 2021, the city reported a nearly 50% decline in the use of force, according to the Seattle Times.

In 2020 — four years after a consent decree many said was long overdue — Newark saw crime drop and officers confiscate 500 guns, all without firing a single bullet or paying to settle a brutality case.

"For the majority of the consent decrees, the departments are better off now than the day before the Justice Department arrived," Walker said.

A marathon process

Ronal Serpas warns that Minneapolis should be preparing for a long haul.

Serpas was chief of police in New Orleans in 2011 when the Justice Department charged the department with a pattern of discriminatory policing. The investigation came amid a string of federal cases involving police in that city — including members of the force being convicted in connection with the murder of a man and incineration of his body in the days after Hurricane Katrina.

Serpas, now a professor who studies policing at Loyola University, said he believes federal intervention was necessary for his former department. But he's skeptical of how long the monitors, who can cost taxpayers millions of dollars per year, stick around to enforce the agreement, often depleting city budgets in the process.

"I think many Americans say: 10 years? 12 years? 14 years? Doesn't that question whether or not these things do work?" Serpas asked. "What other business would need 14 years of federal oversight and still not get any better?"

The long timeframe of the process also means turnover in City Hall, and the threat of vigilance fading as new police chiefs and elected officials move in.

After five years under a consent decree, Pittsburgh was on the "cutting edge of policing and police accountability," said University of Pittsburgh School of Law Professor David Harris.

But a new cast of city officials brought new attitudes toward the reforms.

"Pretty soon you didn't have anybody there who'd been on the frontline of being committed to the consent decree," said Harris. "And it didn't take long to lose its grip."

Next steps

At the Justice Department's news conference Friday, Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara cited the work in Newark, his former employer, as his proven experience with implementing reforms.

"I promise you today that our department will be transparent and will provide an ongoing accounting of our successes as well as our challenges," he said. "It's a tall order, but one that I strongly believe we can achieve together."

Moving forward, Minneapolis and Justice Department officials will negotiate specific changes to address findings of the 89-page charging document published Friday. The document describes a series of "recommended remedial reforms" that offer a window into what may be in the final agreement. They included: sharpening policies on use of force and establishing new mechanisms to enforce them; better documentation of racial disparities; improving accountability of First Amendment violations; and creating better response protocols for calls involving mental health crises.

Ann Bildtsen, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, said the monitor will be selected swiftly.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.