17 Justice Dept. Investigations Into Police Departments Nationwide

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We’ve been telling you about the Justice Department’s examination of the New Orleans Police Department as part of our Law & Disorder investigation into six cases of questionable police shootings in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina. In March, DOJ released a blistering report describing “systemic violations of civil rights” by the NOPD, and just last week it was announced that two FBI agents will be stationed full time in the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau to investigate allegations of significant corruption or civil rights violations.

But the NOPD investigation is just one of 17 active investigations into law enforcement agencies across the country currently being conducted by DOJ’s Civil Rights Division — “more than at any time in the division’s history,” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez told Congress last week.

The probes — which are sanctioned under a law passed in the wake of the notorious 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers yelling racial slurs — are known as “patterns and practice” investigations, and they look at whether police departments exhibit patterns of behavior, including excessive force, false arrests, unreasonable searches and seizures, or racial/ethnic discrimination. While the DOJ doesn’t name the departments it’s investigating, often the cities themselves will publicize them as attempts at reform.

Some of the other departments currently being investigated include:

+ Puerto Rico — On Sept. 8, the DOJ released a scathing report, describing the Puerto Rico Police Department as “an agency in profound disrepair.” It found that PRPD officers had regularly conducted unconstitutional searches of civilians’ homes without a warrant, used excessive force against individuals of Dominican descent, failed to investigate allegations of sex crimes and domestic violence, and had “unnecessarily injured hundreds of people and killed numerous others.” The report also noted the arrest of more than 1,700 officers over a five-year period:

The charges varied widely, from theft and simple assault to rape, drug trafficking and murder. Hundreds of officers have also engaged in domestic violence; many have been arrested multiple times for harming their partners.

DOJ and the PRPD are working together on a comprehensive reform plan for the department.

+ Portland, Ore. — Prompted by an increase in police shootings over the past 18 months, DOJ is looking at whether the department has exhibited a pattern of excessive force, particularly against the mentally ill.

+ Newark, N.J. — After documenting 407 allegations of misconduct, including police shootings, sexual assault, prisoner beatings, false arrests and discrimination, the ACLU petitioned DOJ to open an investigation into the Newark Police Department. DOJ described the petition as one of several factors that led to its investigation.

+ Seattle — The DOJ investigation began in March 2011 after a series of high-profile incidents, all of which were at least partially captured on video, including:

the fatal shooting … of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams; a gang detective threatening to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a Latino man; an officer repeatedly kicking a young African-American man whose hands were raised during a convenience store arrest; and the violent rearrest of a mentally disturbed man inadvertently released from jail.

Patterns and practice investigations usually last a year to a year and a half. Critics say they are wasteful if they duplicate the work of civilian review boards and that court-appointed monitoring can be expensive. But Robert McNeilly, the former police chief in Pittsburgh, whose department became the first major department subjected to federal oversight in 1997, told The Washington Post that there could be some “unnecessary alarm” over the DOJ’s investigations.

“There is no doubt it was an enormous help because dramatic change happened so quickly,” he told the Post. “It changed the culture of the entire organization. We became more accountable.”

Photo: Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, speaking at a press conference about the Justice Department’s investigation into Puerto Rico’s police department (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

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