Justice Department boosts activity to police the police

September 17, 2011

The Obama administration is ramping up civil rights enforcement against local police nationwide, opening a number of investigations to determine whether officers are guilty of brutality or discrimination against Hispanics and other minorities.

In recent months, the Justice Department has begun inquiries into major city police departments such as Portland, Ore., where officers shot several people who had mental health issues, and Seattle, where police were accused of gunning down a homeless Native American woodcarver. The department issued a scathing report earlier this month accusing Puerto Rico police of a “staggering level of crime and corruption.’’

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.

“When police officers cross the line, they need to be held accountable,’’ Perez said. “Criminal prosecutions alone will not change the culture of a department.’’

Experts say it is unclear if police brutality is increasing or just more likely to be exposed, though Justice officials say factors such as the economy and weaknesses in the mental health system are leading to more potentially dangerous encounters with civilians.

“There’s no way to measure it,’’ said Samuel Walker, an expert on police accountability at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who praised the Obama administration’s crackdown as “a simple issue of justice. The victims are almost entirely people of color.’’

The current investigations cite a 1994 federal law that gave the Civil Rights Division the authority to determine whether departments are engaging in a “pattern or practice” of violating constitutional or federal rights. It was enacted after the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.

The Obama administration also has amped up criminal enforcement. The Civil Rights Division last year filed a record number of criminal cases, 52, against mostly law enforcement officers for allegedly violating constitutional or legal rights “under color of law.’’ There are about 10,000 police departments nationwide.

In the civil probes, lawyers in the division’s Special Litigation Section track potential cases through media reports and by consulting with officers, advocacy groups and citizens. Justice Department officials are focusing on large departments and on securing court-enforced changes to guarantee enduring reforms.

“We can’t go everywhere there is a civil rights violation,’’ said one Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not an authorized spokesman. “There are too many places with problems.’’

Among the most expansive probes is in Newark, where the Justice Department announced in May it is investigating allegations including excessive force and discriminatory policing. The ACLU had called for a probe and issued a report documenting 407 alleged cases of police misconduct.

In Suffolk County, N.Y., investigators are probing whether police failed to respond to 911 calls from Hispanics and other non-English speakers. The probe in Portland, launched in June, focuses on allegations of excessive force, especially against people with mental health issues.

Last month, the department announced it would investigate whether Los Angles County sheriff’s deputies in two cities conspired with housing officials to discriminate against black families with low-income housing vouchers.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the county sheriff’s department, said Justice lawyers did not consult with an independent review board probing similar allegations. He said Sheriff Leroy D. Baca would cooperate, yet questioned whether another investigation is needed “when you have several lawyers of oversight already and budgets are extraordinarily tight.’’

Xochitl Hinojosa, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the department “strongly supports civilian oversight and internal mechanisms to independently investigate and remedy constitutional violations.’’ She added that in cases “where internal review or civilian oversight has failed to identify and correct a problem, a civil rights investigation may be necessary.”

Robert McNeilly, who was police chief in Pittsburgh during a five-year court-approved monitoring period after a Justice Department probe, said “there is some unnecessary alarm about these investigations.’’

“There is no doubt it was an enormous help because dramatic change happened so quickly,’’ said McNeilly, whose former department was accused of excessive force and other violations and released from monitoring in 2002.

“It changed the culture of the entire organization,’’ he said. “We became more accountable.’’

Jerry Markon is a political accountability reporter for the Post’s National Desk, focusing on short-term investigative stories about the Affordable Care Act, lobbying and other topics. He also serves as lead Web writer for major breaking national news.
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