Obama and Department of Justice Crack Down on Police Brutality

June 7, 2011  |  

By Charing Ball

President Obama has been criticized a lot lately for neglecting to address the issues that his black constituency deems important. However, a recent announcement (which has pretty much flown under the radar) just might be the key to swaying the opinions of some disgruntled folks in the black and minority communities.

In what some are calling a drastic shift from the Bush administration, President Obama’s Justice Department has initiated several investigations into charges of systematic civil rights abuse in some of the country’s biggest urban police departments. In just the past few months, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ has announced “pattern and practice” investigations into allegations of police brutality, such as harassment of racial minorities, false arrests and excessive use of force, in a handful of cities including Newark, New Jersey; Seattle and Denver.

According to published reports, Congress passed the “pattern and practice” law in 1994 after the brutal police beating of Rodney King. The law allows the DOJ to sue police departments if they are found to have engaged in a pattern of violating individuals’ constitutional rights.

One such investigation the DOJ will be conducting involves the Seattle police department, which was rocked last year by the death of Native American wood carver John T. Williams, whose fatal shooting by police went viral on YouTube.  Although an internal police review found that the shooting was unjustified by the officer who shot Williams, the officer was not charged because of a state law that prevents local prosecutors from filing charges.

The New Orleans police department will also be investigated. The department has become internationally notorious for allegations of police brutality, especially the well-publicized post-Katrina murders in which four police officers were convicted of gunning down two unarmed people.

According to Injustice Everywhere, a website that chronicles daily reports of police brutality, from January 2010 through December 2010, there were as much as 4,860 unique reports of police misconduct resulting in an estimated amount of nearly $347 million paid out in settlements and judgments. Of the nearly 6,620 law enforcement officers involved in these reported allegations of misconduct, nearly 1,580 were involved in excessive force reports. These were the most prominent type of reported incidences of police misconduct, followed by sexual misconduct complaints, which were around 9.3 percent.

In addition, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) suggest that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have engaged in harsh racial and ethnic profiling, mostly targeting blacks, Asians, Latinos and Arab communities, in the post-9/11 period under both Bush and Obama. Police procedures such as the ‘stop-and-frisk’ procedure have been on the rise in big cities across the country, mostly targeting young black males, particularly in places such as New York and Philadelphia.

It would appear that the Obama Administration is beginning to take issues of civil rights violations, particularly in minority communities, very seriously.  Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who vowed to reshape the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, has already begun to reverse a pattern of systematically hiring conservative lawyers with little experience in civil rights, and instead opting for attorneys with ties to traditional civil rights organizations like the ACLU.

It would appear that things are moving in a far better direction. However, I am cautiously optimistic about the shift in the DOJ’s shift in priorities since I am not so sure of what will come of these changes, besides an increase in investigations. I mean, we are talking about the newly revised Justice Department, which last month closed its investigation into the Jan. 12, 2010 beating of Jordan Miles, a Pittsburgh honor student who was savagely attacked by three undercover officers. Even after an “extensive investigation” including a review of 40 witnesses statements, the DOJ still couldn’t find sufficient evidence to prove that the teen’s rights had been violated.  I guess we shall wait and see on this one.


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