As Attorney General, How Will Loretta Lynch Police the Police?

Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on her nomination. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on her nomination. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

April 23, 2015

It’s been nine months since protests first erupted against police killings in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, and the outcry shows no signs of subsiding.

Last week, protesters took to the streets in several cities across the country, blocking highways in anger over the latest shooting deaths of unarmed black men by police officers.

At the same time, many hard-working officers, who often risk their lives to do their jobs, feel under siege. In some cities, the outcry may have made it harder to recruit good cops.

Loretta Lynch, who the Senate confirmed Thursday to be the nation’s next attorney general, has said she’d make it one of her “highest priorities” to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

A key component of that is holding police departments accountable. Now that she’s the nation’s top law enforcement official, what would that mean for Lynch in practice?

How the DOJ Polices the Police

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has two tools available to reform police departments. The first is a program in which it works collaboratively with law enforcement agencies who ask for assistance to implement best practices. That program, administered by the department’s COPS office (Community Oriented Policing Services), started in 2011. It’s also voluntary. Eight departments have participated so far — including Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The other tool is more powerful: the ability to investigate police departments for patterns or practices of misconduct, and then sue them to implement reforms. Since the DOJ first received this authority, under a law passed by Congress in 1994, it has launched at least 66 so-called “pattern or practice” investigations.

Under President George W. Bush, the attorneys general tended to seek cooperation from law enforcement agencies they investigated. But under President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder has had a record of aggressively seeking federal oversight of police departments. His Justice Department has secured more settlements — 15 — with police departments than either the Bush or Clinton administrations. And he leaves open at least 11 additional investigations of law enforcement agencies for Lynch and her attorneys to resolve, including those in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Miami.

It’s not clear how Lynch will approach these cases or any new investigations. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, which Lynch currently leads, declined to comment for this story.

In her Senate testimony, Lynch didn’t directly address these investigations. She instead touted the use of Justice Department grants to help state and local law enforcement hire more officers and keep up with best practices, calling it one of the “most important roles” the department plays. “We try our best to provide them with the resources they need to carry out their jobs safely and effectively,” she said.

But a closer look at two law enforcement agency investigations in which Lynch was involved offers some insight into how she might wield this unique power.

“Extraordinary Efforts to Micromanage” the NYPD

Lynch started her career in federal government as the chief of the Long Island Office in the Eastern District of New York from 1994 to 1998. During that time, she was on the team that prosecuted a police officer for brutally beating and sodomizing Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in a Brooklyn police station, and other officers for covering up the incident. The lead perpetrator, Justin Volpe, ultimately pled guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Another officer served time for perjury.

The Louima incident sparked a broader investigation into whether the New York City Police Department had a pattern or practice of police brutality and civil-rights abuses. When Lynch was appointed by President William Jefferson Clinton as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, she inherited the case.

Often in these investigations, the Justice Department releases a public letter documenting its findings, and then encourages city officials to negotiate a deal.

Instead, Lynch set a deadline for the city to buy in to a “comprehensive settlement” that would implement major reforms to its use of force and arrest practices, according to documents obtained by Newsday. If the city didn’t agree to federal oversight, Lynch warned, it would face a lawsuit.

Her findings came shortly after the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a separate report on NYPD police practices, recommending an independent monitor for the department as well as a special prosecutor to handle high-profile cases of deadly force.

Still, the city fought back hard. In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Lynch’s then-boss, city attorney Michael Hess, noted the NYPD’s cooperation with federal agents across departments. A lawsuit would not only be costly, he said, it could lead to a conflict of interest that “would require a modification in the use of those resources.” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani complained that Lynch’s office had made “extraordinary efforts to micromanage the NYPD.”

Facing an impasse, Attorney General Reno agreed to negotiate.

Discussions continued into early 2001. By then, President George W. Bush had been inaugurated. His new attorney general, John Ashcroft, called for the resignation of nearly all of Clinton’s U.S. attorneys, including Lynch, who stepped aside in May of that year — but not before making a last-ditch attempt to get the city to sign a consent decree — a binding legal agreement committing to comprehensive reforms of the NYPD, Newsday reported.

After that, discussions petered out. The Bush administration was less interested in forcing law enforcement agencies to reform. And the NYPD insisted to federal officials that it had both reduced complaints about excessive use of force and improved its internal affairs process while continuing to reduce crime.

The DOJ investigation was quietly closed just before Christmas Day in 2004, according to data from the Justice Department.

A “Joint Commitment” to Fair Policing with Suffolk County

After nearly a decade in the private sector, Lynch returned as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District in 2010, after being appointed by President Obama. This time, she inherited an investigation of the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) in Long Island that stemmed from the 2008 death of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant, who was was stabbed to death by a group of teenagers. The young men, who called themselves the “Caucasian Crew,” later said they had attacked other Latinos in the community for years, a practice they referred to as “beaner hopping.”

After Lucero’s death, other Latino men came forward to say that they had been harassed or assaulted because of their ethnic or racial background, but had been either discouraged or too intimidated to file complaints to the police.

The Justice Department opened an investigation into the police department in 2009, after a local civil-rights group, LatinoJustice, filed a complaint.

This time, Lynch’s office and the Justice Department took a more collaborative approach. Noting that it had promised a “transparent investigation,” the DOJ released a letter signed by both the Justice Department’s top civil rights litigation attorney and one of Lynch’s deputies midway through the investigation that recommended the SCPD make several reforms. For example, it suggested that the department more clearly track hate and bias incidents committed by young people.

In 2014, Lynch and officials from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division secured a memorandum of agreement (MOA) from the department, noting the SCPD’s cooperation. The department agreed, among other things, to implement a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy, more aggressively refer citizen complaints for investigation, and discipline officers found to have engaged in biased policing.

The agreement is set to last at least three years. Suffolk County police officials told FRONTLINE that they have worked hard to better serve the growing Latino community in the county, and that the Justice Department agreement has helped further that effort.

“We do appreciate the assistance of the DOJ in bringing us ideas they’ve implemented nationwide,” said Detective Lt. Robert Donohue, who commands the department’s new community response bureau. He added: “It’s a friendly partnership.”

The Justice Department said in a statement that the SCPD had been working “cooperatively” to address its concerns. “The MOA — when fully executed — will ensure that SCPD has implemented comprehensive provisions on biased policing, community policing, and hate crime investigations.”

So far, the SCPD has among other things, updated its policies to clarify that victims and witnesses will not be questioned about their immigration status, which can discourage people from reporting crimes, and posted that information publicly in Spanish. They’ve made it a point to hire Spanish-speaking officers who can act as points of contact in the community. Top police officials also hold regular meetings with Latino community leaders and clergy members.

“There’s much better engagement, I would say, over the past few years,” Donohue said. “There seems to be more of a trust between the police and the community.”

Even though they approve of the many changes, activists at LatinoJustice said they hoped for a broader investigation of the department by the DOJ. “Obviously we didn’t think they went far enough,” said Foster Maer, a senior litigation counsel for the group.

Maer pointed to allegations some of his clients had made about a patrol sergeant who repeatedly targeted, pulled over and robbed Latino drivers while he was on the job — even as the Justice Department was investigating the SCPD.

That pattern of behavior — the sergeant allegedly robbed drivers in three different towns — suggests a more systemic problem that the DOJ should have investigated, Maer said. “They needed to investigate what was going on in the four walls of the police department.”

Suffolk County police ultimately did catch the sergeant, Scott Greene, in a sting operation in January 2014. Now retired, Greene has been indicted on multiple counts of grand larceny as a hate crime. He has pleaded not guilty.

The arrest should serve as proof that Suffolk County police take such crimes seriously even when the perpetrator is a police officer, said Kevin Fallon, deputy chief in the police commissioner’s office.

“We’re proud of the way we serve the public, and like any organization, we are working to continually improve ourselves,” he said.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

More Stories

“Somber Day” in Uvalde as Community Commemorates One Year Since Robb Elementary Shooting
From our partners at The Texas Tribune: Numerous vigils and memorials in Uvalde marked one year since the massacre at Robb Elementary School.
May 24, 2023
“Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah” Filmmaker on Showing the Impact of War on Humans
The FRONTLINE documentary traces the long-lasting aftermath of the battle of Fallujah through two families, one Iraqi and one American.
May 23, 2023
Surviving the Iraq War’s Bloodiest Battle: An Iraqi Mother’s Story
Prior to an operation to retake Fallujah from insurgents, the U.S. military warned civilians to leave the city. But for many Fallujah residents, leaving wasn’t possible. One Iraqi family shares their story in a new FRONTLINE documentary.
May 23, 2023
How the Mental Health System Affects North Carolina’s Jails and the People That Work There
North Carolina's jails are on the frontlines of the mental health crisis. WFAE examines how jail staff have to tend to inmates with mental health issues and the toll that kind of work can take.
May 23, 2023