Questioning the Cops: The DoJ investigations and results in one chart

Agency Date of Report Discrimination Excessive Force
Maricopa Cnty AZ 2011 yes yes
Antelope Valley CA 2013 yes yes
East Haven CT 2011 yes yes
Miami FL 2013 yes yes
New Orleans LA 2011 yes yes
Detroit, MI 2014 (2000) yes yes*
Missoula, MT Attorney’s Office 2014 yes, gender  
Newark, NJ   2014 yes yes
Albuquerque, NM   2014 yes, mentally ill yes
Alamance Cnty, NC   2012 yes not included
Cleveland, OH 2014 not included yes
Portland, OR 2012 yes, mentally ill yes
Puerto Rico 2011 not included yes
Seattle, WA 2011 no yes

Note:  This chart shows only those investigations which resulted in a formal finding letter, or letter of agreement with the local agency. Technical support letters issued to local governing bodies were not included. *The follow up investigation of the Detroit Police Department noted significant improvement in the policies applied by the department since the initial investigation begun in 2000.

What Does The Department of Justice Look For?

A review of the “findings letters” issued to the local police departments as a result of investigations initiated under the provisions of  42 U.S.C. § 14141 offers some hope for those who believe that the publication of those findings will result in progress toward a more effective police force.  The ‘findings’ generally support the validity of the allegations of discrimination, use of excessive force, or both, made by complaining parties.  What should concern American citizens is the wide ranging geography of the investigations and the finding of patterns or practices of discrimination and the use of excessive force.  If such allegations are supported from Connecticut to California, and from Michigan to Puerto Rico – something is going very wrong nationally.

While the ‘targets’ of inappropriate police actions might range from predominantly African American or Latino/Hispanic American to women and to the mentally ill, the use of unjustifiable force was exhibited and documented in all the previous 16 investigations reported since 2011.

On-going Investigations

The Department of Justice has already indicated official interest in the Baltimore, MD police department. [DoJ 2012] A request for further investigation came from city officials with concerns described by the Baltimore Sun:

“The request came days after The Baltimore Sun reported that the city had paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police misconduct since 2011. Nearly all of the people involved in the incidents that led to the lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges. Some officers were named in more than one lawsuit.”

The city of Ferguson, Missouri is also being investigated by the Department of Justice in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown.  Cleveland, Ohio police will be under additional scrutiny since a previous report found the department to be in serious violation (pdf) of Constitutional requirements, and going so far as to identify incidents in which the police, themselves, were a danger to public safety.

A further investigation into the death of Staten Island, NY citizen Eric Garner will no doubt shed more light on the police practices in New York.  In fact, given the interest in the case by local and state officials this could end up being one of the most prodigious investigations in scope (if not in result) conducted thus far.

Another possible avenue for police review comes in the form of an agency or department request for examination by the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office of the Department of Justice. This was the route taken by the Las Vegas, NV police department in the aftermath of several police shootings in 2011.  The report was released on November 15, 2012.

Implications and Questions

The hope is that the findings from the Department of Justice (and from local efforts) will result in improvements to policing in the nations towns and cities. However, it would be excessively naive to assume that the progress will come automatically upon the exposure of unconstitutional practices.

For example, the situation in Maricopa County, AZ  and in Alamance County, NC indicates a pattern of ‘politically’ approved discrimination against Latino/Hispanic residents of those areas.  If an area is of sufficient wealth to absorb the costs of ongoing litigation or to see those costs as merely necessary to continue the status quo then federal corrective options are minimized. In the instance of Antelope Valley, CA the police gave the appearance of being the extension of anti-minority biases prevalent in the community, and among community political leadership.

In other cases, such as illustrated in Cleveland, the 59 page findings letter (pdf) reports a department-wide failure of leadership.

“We have concluded that these incidents of excessive force are rooted in common structural deficiencies. CDP’s pattern or practice of excessive force is both reflected by and stems from its failure to adequately review and investigate officers’ uses of force; fully and objectively investigate all allegations of misconduct; identify and respond to patterns of at-risk behavior; provide its officers with the support, training, supervision, and equipment needed to allow them to do their jobs safely and effectively; adopt and enforce appropriate policies; and implement effective community policing strategies at all levels of CDP.”

It doesn’t get much more damning than that statement.  A similar conclusion may be forthcoming concerning the leadership of the Ferguson, Missouri department? 

The nexus of political and departmental leadership problems may be highlighted by the Eric Garner case in New York City.  The lack of internal review and consideration of Officer Pantaleo’s previous problems is clear, but what should also be considered is that of the 259 court appearances made by the officer as a result of his arrests only 24 were felony cases; most were minor marijuana possession cases and trespassing incidents.  One news source observed:

“It’s clear that he’s policing by the numbers,” said John Eterno, a former NYPD captain who now runs the graduate criminal justice program at Long Island’s Molloy College. Eterno, a critic of the police department’s emphasis on statistics, reviewed the records for WNYC. “This is what the NYPD does,” he said. “This is their mainstay. This is their style of policing, at least for the last 12 years. And [for] most officers that are on the NYPD, this is the style of policing that they’re familiar with. They know nothing else.” [WYNC]

This All-American penchant for “numbers” may be one of the factors leading toward a mistrustful relationship between the police and the communities they seek to serve.  A department which measures success by the number of arrests – will have a large number of arrests, and arrests look good on paper.  The paper looks good to the policy makers who are to make funding decisions for the department. And, thus begins a never-ending cycle of more arrests to justify more funding. The obvious conclusion all those petty arrests are demonstrably harmful to the community – which ultimately has to pay the tab – fades from the formula.

Ultimately, no finding from the Department of Justice can obviate the escalation problem, an escalation problem rooted in good old fashioned fear – the fear articulated by former Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson.

The Detroit Free Press offers an attempt to guide the conversation toward this issue, and deserves to be quoted at some length:

“For conversation’s sake, let’s give Darren Wilson the benefit of the doubt: Let’s assume he was terrified. Let’s assume all cops killing black males are good people experiencing the most primal fear imaginable.

The question is why? Why was Wilson so afraid — afraid for his life? Even if Brown punched or tussled with Wilson, Wilson was an adult, a police officer, in a vehicle and armed. Brown was a kid, on foot and weaponless. Why have other cops been so petrified interacting with black men?”

Research from the American Psychological Association shows that cops overestimate black children’s ages and are more likely to assume black kids are guilty of crimes. This bias cripples black boys: They’re held responsible for their actions while white boys enjoy the benefits of presumed childhood innocence and immaturity. Black boys also are believed stronger and tougher — more adult — then they actually are.” […]

The most important question Ferguson asks isn’t whether cops are good or bad. It isn’t even whether Wilson was afraid “enough” to justify killing. It’s why black boys and men make so many people so profoundly scared. Either there is something irredeemably dangerous in the very DNA of black males justifying the fear — or we’re living a lethal lie.

If we’re willing to unpack and unlearn this lie, then lasting good will come out of Ferguson.”

There are positive steps which can be taken after the reports from the Department of Justice and other agencies are publicized – ranging from political action to improve the social environment in which officers serve to improving the leadership and upgrading the policies of police departments.  However, what cannot be resolved from East Haven, CT to Los Angeles County are those issues stemming from and compounding the Lethal Lie.  But a lie – like all lies – once in the light of day tend to lose luster. This one in particular needs no more fuel – a good dousing in common sense is required.

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