Justice Department Was Pursing Police Reform Long Before Ferguson
By Josh Kovensky | December 24, 2021 4:37 pm

The Justice Department made investigating and reforming police departments around the country a priority long before the media descended on Ferguson, Mo., and protesters began swarming intersections across the country.

While the effort previously drew little national attention, the Obama administration has since 2009 been investigating metropolitan police departments and other law enforcement agencies around the country, for abuses ranging from violent infringements on constitutional rights to the systemic abuse of mentally ill citizens.

Police in Ferguson, Missouri

The Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations also pursued such investigations after a 1994 law authorized them.

But Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a research organization that focuses on critical issues in policing, told Main Justice ”there’s no question that this administration has put a priority on these kinds of studies.”

Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called it “an evolution of the department,” that also mirrors a transformation in Attorney General Eric Holder.

Holder made little public effort in his early days in office to address racial issues, after Obama chided him for giving a 2009 speech in which he admonished America as a “nation of cowards” for failing to have honest discussions about race. The nation’s first black president seemed intent on downplaying racial issues. But Holder eventually came to be the administration’s most visible spokesman on civil rights.

“When [Holder] first came into office, when we met with him in 2009,” Arnwine said, “he indicated at that time that he wanted to focus on civil rights and criminal justice matters. He wanted that to become a major part of his work.”

Over time, he evolved into doing just that, with a focus on policing and criminal justice reform, Arnwine said. “I think he became much more enmeshed in these issues as he exercised his authority as chief law enforcement officer of the land. I think he changed. I see a man that has fully come into his own on these issues,” she said.

A recent protest in New York City

Holder’s Justice Department has been somewhat more aggressive than the George W. Bush administration in investigating and reaching civil rights settlements with law enforcement agencies, but given the expense and complexity of such probes, the actual numbers remain small.

According to a Dec. 4 fact sheet released by the department, the government has entered into legally binding agreements with 15 departments and is in litigation with an additional four jurisdictions. One study identified a total of 21 investigations under President Bush leading to 11 legally binding settlements.

This study also found that toward the middle of the Bush administration, an internal Justice Department policy change against working closely with civil rights groups - traditional partners in identifying and investigating abuse of force allegations - dampened enforcement.

The Holder Justice Department reversed that policy and has again been partnering with civil rights groups in police agency probes.

Rodney King beating

The department’s Civil Rights Division is authorized to investigate police departments for patterns and practices of unconstitutional conduct under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

The 1994 law — passed after the 1992 acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King sparked riots, and more generally amid concerns about a surge in violent crime -makes the consent decrees and agreements that emerge from these investigations possible.

A report released by Wexler’s Police Forum in 2013 titled Civil Rights Investigations of Police: Lessons Learned documents the department’s focus in consent decrees, identifying excessive uses of force, biased policing, interactions with the mentally ill, officer management, and gender bias as key areas.

“No department today,” Wexler said, “should be unaware of what the Department of Justice expects in terms of good practices when it comes to pattern and practice cases.”

The Police Forum director added, “police departments have to document their use of force, and they have to be transparent with how they oversee and monitor their own use of force.”

Holder era probes

In virtually all of the probes launched since Holder became Attorney General, investigators have found systemic use of force to be an issue. Discriminatory policing is not always targeted towards African-Americans—in Seattle, Native Americans were singled out by police officers. In Portland and Albuquerque, the mentally ill found themselves on the street due to a breakdown in public mental health care and subsequently targeted by officers who misinterpreted their symptoms as criminality.

It remains to be seen whether Holder’s enforcement initiatives will have more lasting impact than in previous administrations. Under Holder, the Civil Rights Division has investigated more than 20 departments, but has repeatedly found itself in the position of re-investigating police departments that signed no legally binding agreement to reform with previous administrations.

Attorney General Eric Holder

In Miami, for example, Justice Department investigators found instances of excessive use of force and other abuses of power in 2003. Those findings did not lead to a legally-binding agreement, and the MPD continued for a decade without any federal monitoring until 2013, when Civil Rights Division investigators found repeat practices of the same abuses they uncovered in 2003.

Below is a Main Justice review of Justice Department investigations into police departments around the country since 2009.

“We are committed,” Holder said in a recent speech announcing completion of a police review in Cleveland, where police shot a 12-year-old boy last month who held a fake gun, “here in Cleveland and throughout the nation, to spur renewed engagement, renewed trust, and renewed momentum to translate coordinated action into meaningful results.”

Cleveland

In 2002, the Justice Department began investigating the Cleveland Police Department in response to allegations of police misconduct. Prosecutors did not issue charges or enter into a formal agreement with the city of Cleveland in that case—rather, they issued a number of recommendations for reform in the department. That agreement held no legal weight—that is, there were no court-enforceable consequences to non-compliance, and there was no court-appointed monitor installed in the Cleveland police department to oversee the changes.

In 2012, the Justice Department opened a second investigation in response to ongoing complaints about excessive use of police force. That report, which reviewed over 600 use-of-force incidents between 2010 and 2013, catalogs many of the same abuses that were found in 2002. As the report notes, the past abuses are “starkly similar to those today. While the Justice Department has yet to reach a settlement with the city of Cleveland, the two have already a signed a statement of principles on reforming the city’s police. That document installs an independent monitor to oversee numerous modifications to department policy.

Miami

The Justice Department investigated the Miami Police Department in 2003 after Mayor Manuel Diaz requested federal assistance to reform the department. The Department did not file charges in that case, nor reach any legally-binding agreement with the city—the investigation concluded on a collegial note, with prosecutors expressing gratitude for the city’s “considerable cooperation.” That cooperation, however, had little overall effect.

The feds opened another investigation into the Miami Police Department in 2012 after MPD officers shot seven young African-American men in an eight-month period between 2010 and 2011. Federal investigators identified three unjustified officer-involved shootings, as well as other abuses detailed in the 2013 Investigation report. “Many of the deficiencies,” federal investigators wrote, “that we previously uncovered [in 2003] now appear to be deeply rooted, we are concerned about the sustainability of these recent changes.” The Miami investigation remains open; the city’s police and the Justice Department reportedly remain in discussions about reforming Miami law enforcement.

Detroit

The Justice Department released its investigation into the Detroit Police Department in 2002. That investigation began in 2000 under Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno, who began the probe after receiving a letter from Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer calling for reform in the city’s police department after 47 fatal officer shootings between 1995 and 2000. In 2003, the City of Detroit entered into an agreement with the Justice Department after the government filed a complaint against the city. That complaint led to a consent agreement which stipulated extensive reforms, including the installation of a federal monitor to implement the changes.

Detroit proves itself to be the exception to the rule that federal police probes were ineffective. According to a follow-up investigation in 2014, investigators found that the police force was compliant with 90% of the reforms they had enacted a decade earlier. Use of force incidents, for example, declined from 873 in the year 2010 to 473 in 2013. In the past five years, police have fatally shot 17 people. The report attributes these improvements to the work of the city’s independent monitor, as well as to regular and intensive follow-ups from the Justice Department. “Commending” the DPD’s improvement over the past decade, the Department has now embarked on a transition agreement with the City of Detroit that will end the ten years that the city has spent under a federal monitor program.

The same tactics used in Detroit are being applied to the cities below, whose police forces have also faced investigations and consent decrees during the Obama years.

New Orleans

In a 2011 findings report to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Justice Department investigators wrote that they had found patterns and practice of abuse. Investigators also uncovered evidence of a system by which officers involved in shootings were transferred to the homicide department. NOPD homicide detectives would then interview them, automatically rendering the officers’ statements “compelled” and likely inadmissible in court.  That report led to a extensive negotiations between the city of New Orleans and the Justice Department, resulting in a consent decree between the two parties stipulating an independent monitor to implement changes, as well as a community-based “crisis intervention team” to handle volatile situations.

Seattle

An investigation began into the Seattle Police Department after a policeman shot an unarmed, homeless Native American woodcarver on the street in 2012. That investigation found SPD officers systemically discriminating against Native Americans, and that in one in five police-citizen interactions, officers wound up violating the constitutional rights of citizens. A settlement led to a series of internal reforms with the obligatory Obama-era independent monitor. Seattle police have protested against the Justice Department’s investigation. Over 100 SPD cops filed a lawsuit in May alleging that the federal reforms imposed unrealistic constraints on their ability to enforce the law.

Newark

The Justice Department opened an investigation into the Newark Police Department in 2011 upon receiving numerous tips about ongoing civil rights violations by members of the force. The DOJ completed their investigation this summer, and released the results in July, finding that Newark cops routinely detained people without cause, amid other egregious oversteps. Negotiations between the city of Newark and the federal government are ongoing, though they signed an agreement in principle in July after the investigation was released. That agreement, which will likely be codified in a consent agreement to come, revises use-of-force guidelines within the department and installs both a monitor and a “civilian oversight entity” to keep the department in compliance.

Albuquerque

The federal government opened an investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department after 20 officer-involved shootings occurred between 2009 and 2012 and a review of 200 use of force reports found systemic constitutional abuses. The findings were released in April 2014, showing that APD officers systemically mistreated the mentally ill. The city of Albuquerque and the Justice Department reached a settlement agreement to resolve the issues.

Portland

The Civil Rights Division’s investigation into Oregon’s Portland Police Bureau had a narrow focus—misconduct towards the mentally ill. The probe began in 2011 after a number of high-profile cases involving Portland police shooting mentally ill homeless people. In one case, a homeless, mentally ill veteran was shot ten times after emerging from a car wash holding a knife. Their findings letter, released in September 2012, argued that a failed mental health system had combined with a lack of officer training to create volatile situations for the mentally ill. After two years of negotiations and attempts at reform, the DOJ and Portland police reached a court-approved settlement agreement in August 2014 requiring all officers to file detailed reports on use of force, prohibiting the use of tasers against the mentally ill except in extreme circumstances, and adding a compliance officer to oversee the reforms.

Puerto Rico

The Civil Rights Division began investigating the Puerto Rico Police Department in 2008 following ‘massacres’ in which officers gunned down civilians, seemingly at random. The DOJ announced its findings from the investigation in 2011. They included a determination that the Puerto Rican police had discriminated against dominicans and fostered a “violent culture” within the system. The Justice Department and the Puerto Rican police entered into a settlement agreement in 2013. A federal monitor has been enforcing the agreement since.

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