By Chuck Raasch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department has intervened in cases involving more than two dozen local or state law enforcement departments over the last 20 years.
The most recent intervention is coming in the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Saturday.
Since 1997, 21 police departments — ranging from East Haven, Connecticut, to Los Angeles — have signed consent agreements with the Justice Department to improve procedures and policies. They often have involved use of force or relationships with minority communities, according to Samuel Walker, a national authority on civil liberties, policing and criminal justice policy.
Not all Justice Department involvement goes as far as consent decrees, and the department does not announce all its investigative activities, particularly if it investigates and closes without further action.
Consent agreements or investigations reached between the Justice Department and police forces usually came after broad allegations of police misconduct or, in a few cases, where specific instances spark broader action against a police force with a history of complaints against it.
The Justice Department involvement in the Ferguson case has so far been what Attorney General Eric Holder describes as supplementary to local law enforcement investigations of the shooting.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), and two other members of Congress on Monday called for a broader investigation than the parallel track laid by Holder.
The concurrent investigation “may be insufficient for two reasons,” Clay wrote Holder, in a letter co-signed by Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), and Marcia Fudge (D-OH). “First, the St. Louis County Police Department may not be the most objective or credible body to investigate civil rights matters involving law enforcement given evidence of racial profiling by that department in the recent past, which Congressman Clay had asked the Department of Justice to investigate.
“Second, only the federal government has the resources, the experience, and the full independence to give this case the close scrutiny that the citizens of Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area deserve.”
The Missouri State Conference of the NAACP in November 2013 filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging that St. Louis County police officers racially profiled blacks in and around stores in south St. Louis County and that racism is rampant in the department’s hiring, firing and discipline.
The attorney general’s reach in cases where race and civil rights violations are potential factors grew in the 1994 Violent Crime Act that passed in the aftermath of the late Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers. The law gave the Justice Department power to bring civil suits against law enforcement agencies where a “pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers” exists that “deprives persons of rights, privileges, and immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States or by the Constitution or laws of state.”
Brown’s shooting is yet another flash point in what Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, calls “an ongoing national racial crisis,” where there are constant tensions between minority communities and law enforcement.
Walker, who has written books about civil rights and law enforcement, said consent agreements signed by law enforcement agencies with DOJ have generally produced positive results.
“Generally, they have been successful in jump-starting reforms in very troubled departments,” Walker said. “The major issue in my mind is whether the reforms take hold and become institutionalized. But overall, they are our best mechanism for dealing with troubled departments, and it is far more effective than simply prosecuting officers.”
AFP Photo/Al Seib