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Feds stepping up police-abuse cases

SEATTLE – If the Seattle Police Department feels singled out by the U.S. Department of Justice and its findings of an unconstitutional pattern of excessive force by officers, it shouldn’t.

It was one of three law-enforcement agencies in the span of a few days last month that were accused by the federal agency of violating the rights of the people they’re supposed to protect and serve.

When Assistant Attorney Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, disclosed the findings Dec. 16 in Seattle, the event was sandwiched between other news conferences to announce that the Justice Department found that law-enforcement officers in Maricopa County, Ariz., and East Haven, Conn., had discriminated against Latinos.

Such “pattern and practice” investigations – so-called because they seek to identify unconstitutional patterns and practices by police – are on a steep upswing, according to a review of Justice Department statistics.

Experts on race, the law and police accountability say the rise in such cases reflects, in part, a disturbing increase in cases of police abuse across the country that can’t be entirely explained away by an aggressive civil-rights-minded attorney general or a change in the political winds.

“There is no question that there is a problem,” said Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and the author of more than a dozen books on police accountability, civil rights and police oversight.

“What is happening is that they are addressing it,” Walker said, something he says was done only sporadically during the George W. Bush administration, which considered police misconduct a local issue.

In Spokane, the Police Department is waiting to hear whether the Justice Department will open an investigation of its use-of-force policies and practices. Former Mayor Mary Verner requested the review after the conclusion of the Otto Zehm trial, in which Officer Karl Thompson Jr. was convicted on charges of excessive force and lying to investigators.

The Civil Rights Division, Walker said, has doubled its number of attorneys since President Barack Obama took office, has moved to complete the few continuing investigations, and is opening new ones with regularity.

Last year, the division’s Special Litigation Section, which oversees pattern-and-practice investigations, released findings of investigations into seven law-enforcement agencies, including Seattle. There were none released in 2010 and two in 2009.

When he was in Seattle last month, Perez said the division had 20 ongoing pattern-and-practice investigations nationwide.

Critics say the Justice Department investigations, particularly those that focus on alleged police abuses, are politically driven and don’t necessarily reflect a growing problem among law-enforcement agencies.

“These reports aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a former civil rights attorney at the Justice Department and now a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Institute for Legal and Judicial Studies in Washington.

Seattle has said it will implement the Justice Department recommendations, but von Spakovsky says cities under investigation often do so for political expediency.

The law enabling the investigations passed in 1994.

Since then, the Justice Department has conducted about 60 full investigations that looked into a fraction of the nearly 16,000 police departments and sheriff’s offices nationwide. The Department of Justice points out that investigations remain rare, and generally are conducted only in cases where a preliminary review turns up strong evidence of violations, and local efforts to address them have failed.

Many of the early investigations focused on big departments with big problems – New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York City and Cincinnati, among others.

However, the most recent investigations appear aimed at smaller and midsize departments where profiling and use-of-force issues were thought to be minimal, such as Seattle and neighboring Portland, where the Justice Department announced an investigation late last year.

Gloria Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the author of the book “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” says American cities are experiencing blowback from decades of pouring money and resources into law-enforcement agencies to fight the wars on drugs and terrorism, while police oversight lagged.

Going back just 15 years, she noted that President Bill Clinton spent billions of dollars on local law enforcement to fight urban crime and the crack-cocaine epidemic. The flow of money continued through the post-Sept. 11 Bush administration, which granted unprecedented powers to police and shifted the focus of the FBI and other federal agencies from public safety to national security.

Walker and Browne-Marshall say there is strong and growing evidence of widespread biased policing in the U.S., but that accurate data need to be gathered.

The game-changer, Browne-Marshall says, has been the cellphone camera.

For decades, allegations of police abuses have often been unprovable: a “he-said, he-said,” with a police officer on one side and the word of the victim and maybe a few witnesses – often members of the same community – on the other.

Then came the irrefutable viral videos, and those allegations weren’t weightless anymore. In Seattle, many cases of alleged police misconduct examined by the Justice Department had been caught at least in part on video, including the fatal shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.

“There is political power in putting cellphone video up on YouTube,” Browne-Marshall said. “There’s actual visual evidence. It can’t be ignored by anybody.”