All told, Justice’s Civil Rights Division is conducting 17 probes of police and sheriff departments — the largest number in its 54-year history. The investigations are civil, meaning they will not lead to criminal charges, but can result in court-enforced reforms.
The federal effort, part of the administration’s heightened enforcement of civil rights laws, has won praise from advocacy groups and experts on police brutality.
“This is long overdue,’’ said Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. “The Bush administration beyond dropped the ball. These are some of the most egregious situations, places where we have killings committed by officers.’’
While many localities have welcomed the federal inquiries, others complain they are duplicating the work of civilian review boards, and can end up costing the jurisdictions millions of dollars if monitoring is ordered. Two of the departments under review have resisted, forcing the government to sue to gain access to documents or to interview deputies.
Among those is Maricopa County, Ariz., led by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose department is under investigation for allegedly discriminating against Hispanic inmates and motorists.
The sheriff’s office in Alamance County, N.C., is still battling the Justice Department in court and has accused it of having political motives. “We have no idea what the allegations are because they won’t tell us,’’ said Randy Jones, a sheriff’s office spokesman. “They need to be upfront and professional, and we haven’t seen that . . . it seems like they’re trying to find something, and there’s nothing there.’’
Justice officials, who have said they are exploring whether Alamance deputies discriminated against Hispanics, say police investigations are a key part of their effort to revitalize the Civil Rights Division. It had suffered a mass exodus of lawyers amid conclusions by internal watchdogs that hiring was politicized in the Bush administration.
Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the investigations into local police are “really a cornerstone of our work.” He was speaking to reporters about the report on Puerto Rico, which accused officers of widespread brutality, unconstitutional arrests and targeting people of Dominican descent.
That followed a Justice Department report in March that said the New Orleans Police Department repeatedly violated constitutional rights by using excessive force, illegally arresting people and targeting black and gay residents.