Policing The Police: U.S. Steps Up Enforcement

Jun 12, 2011

The U.S. Justice Department is stepping up its scrutiny of troubled police departments. Federal civil rights lawyers are investigating 15 departments from Arizona to New Jersey, asking whether officers are discriminating against minorities or using too much force.

When it comes to federal oversight of local police, there's only one place to start: the brutal attack on Rodney King. A Los Angeles police chief admitted King had been hit with batons more than 50 times, kicked at least seven times and shocked with a stun gun.

That brutal attack caught on videotape by a witness prompted Congress to give the Justice Department the power to investigate patterns of discrimination by local cops.

Tom Perez, who leads the Obama Justice Department's civil rights unit, said in an interview with NPR that officials are using that authority with care.

"This is not a gotcha exercise," Perez says. "We're not in this to fix the blame, we're in this to fix the problem."

Focus On Reform

Since the start of the Obama administration, Perez's lawyers have launched investigations all over the country, from Seattle to Newark to New Orleans.

"I think what we're doing differently in this administration, aside from doing more of it is, I think we're doing it in a much more strategic way, with a focus on systemic reform," Perez says.

That means asking law enforcement to track how many minorities they stop and frisk, and how many times police use guns or other weapons against suspects.

Craig Futterman represents victims of law enforcement abuse at a law clinic he runs at the University of Chicago.

"The newer interventions now in New Orleans and Newark are signs of renewed commitment by the federal government and Department of Justice," Futterman says.

There's really no one else who can do the job, since victims of law enforcement abuse don't want to go to the same local police that employ their alleged abusers.

"It's the age-old question of who polices the police?" Futterman says.

But people who speak for police officers want the feds to slam on the brakes.

"Police officers are on our side — your side and my side," says Jim Pasco, who lobbies for the Fraternal Order of Police in Washington. "They're not the enemy and shouldn't be treated as such."

All too often, Pasco says, street cops get blamed for the failures of their managers. He says the Justice Department investigations take too long and often end with no fanfare years later.

"In a very small minority of cases where officers overstep or misstep, we would agree that something needs to be done," Pasco says. "But to just wholesale investigate police departments — trolling, in effect, for problems — is something that has a chilling effect on rank-and-file officers."

The 'Aorta Of Corruption'

Sometimes, senior Justice Department officials say, exposing dirty laundry to the chilly air is exactly what's needed.

"We are doing no favors to law-abiding officers, we're doing no favors to communities by sweeping these challenges under the rug," Perez says.

And nowhere is that rug bigger than in the Big Easy, where Justice spent 11 months investigating the New Orleans Police Department.

Here's what the agency found: widespread racial profiling, unconstitutional searches, and the failure to investigate rape and domestic violence.

At a news conference in March, Perez blamed the paid detail system, a sort of sanctioned moonlighting by police officers, for much of the department's trouble.

"That detail system, in the opinion of one observer of the department, is the aorta of corruption in that department," he said at the time.

Over the past few weeks, several officers in New Orleans have been put on leave in a widening scandal over those arrangements. Justice Department officials say they expect to reach a settlement agreement with the city by the end of the year.

But unlike some of their predecessors in both Democratic and Republican administrations, Perez and Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole say they want to stick around for a while, to make sure the problems are really solved, before turning their attention to other things.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.