There has been a thread of common wisdom which says the DOJ is turning a blind eye to police brutality, most recently with regard to the excessive force shown to Occupy protesters around the country.
In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Via The Root:
But in the last two years, according to the U.S. Justice Department, allegations of wrongdoing by police departments across the country have mushroomed to unprecedented levels. According to Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, at least 17 U.S. police departments are under investigation for various civil rights violations, "more than at any time in the division's history," Perez said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September.
Earlier this year, Salon writer Justin Elliott wrote an article about the man at the top of the section responsible for the renewed DOJ focus on civil rights: Thomas Perez. Since Perez took over the Civil Rights section at the DOJ, the focus has shifted from counterterrorism back to police brutality.
In just the past few months, the Civil Rights Division has announced “pattern and practice” investigations in Newark, New Jersey and Seattle. It’s also conducting a preliminary investigation of the Denver Police Department, and all this is on top of a high-profile push to reform the notorious New Orleans Police Department — as well as criminal prosecutions of several New Orleans officers.
The “pattern and practice” authority comes from a 1994 law passed by Congress after the brutal beating of Rodney King by white Los Angeles police officers, who allegedly yelled racial slurs as they hit him. The law allows the DOJ to sue police departments if there is a pattern of violations of citizens’ constitutional rights — things like an excessive use of force, discrimination, and illegal searches. Often, after an investigation, the police department in question will enter into a voluntary reform agreement with the DOJ to avoid a lawsuit and the imposition of reforms.
“Under the Bush administration, the Justice Department disappeared here in terms of federal civil rights enforcement. You could see the shift to counterterrorism at the ground level after Sept. 11,” says Mary Howell , a New Orleans civil rights attorney who has been working on police misconduct cases for more than three decades. “Now they’re back doing criminal prosecutions of police and the civil rights investigation, which is huge.”
Predictably, the right wing claims this focus on police brutality is nothing more than an attempt to shift focus from the ridiculous Fast and Furious allegations dogging Eric Holder. This is somewhat laughable, given that these investigations have been in progress since 2009.
Via The Root:
As identified by the DOJ, the scope of deficiencies at the SPD is frankly panoramic. The department was faulted for lax oversight of policies and training on the use of force, the reporting of use of force and the amount of force to be wielded by officers; failure of supervisors to follow up on use-of-force cases; faulty methods of complaint investigation, intervention and discipline; inadequate policies on stopping pedestrians; and even poor performance on collecting the data needed to make a determination of bias.
"Many of these officers may have a perfectly legitimate justification for their activities, while others may not," Perez said in Seattle on Dec. 16. "We don't know the answer because the accountability systems have not been put in place."
The complaints filed this year came from the city's chapter of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and 33 other nonprofits and advocacy organizations spanning the demographic spectrum. Numerous incidents have aroused the suspicion and concern of minorities in Seattle -- from an officer's punching of a teenage girl in a June 2010 jaywalking incident to the fatal unprovoked police shooting of a wood-carver in August 2010 and the use of pepper spray against peaceful Occupy protesters in downtown Seattle.
Even though the UC Davis pepper spray incident was horrifying and certainly worthy of headlines, Seattle police were far more extravagant in their use, spraying pregnant and elderly protesters with abandon. That's a shining example of excessive force, and one that fits right into the DOJ characterization of the Seattle PD.
Sometimes the most effective work of government is done without the headlines. This is one shining example.