Where Police Misconduct is Still A Problem

June 18, 2012

Oakland police block off upper Broadway after breaking up the Occupy Oakland camps in Frank Ogawa Plaza and Snow Park on Tuesday. Oct. 25, 2011 in Oakland, Calif. Police in riot gear began clearing anti-Wall Street protesters on Tuesday morning from the plaza in front of Oakland's City Hall where they have been camped out for about two weeks. City officials had originally been supportive of the protesters, but the city later warned the protesters that they were breaking the law and could not stay in the encampment overnight. (AP Photo/Bay Area News Group, Jane Tyska)

Rodney King, who was found dead this weekend in a swimming pool at his house, once said that he believed his beating by Los Angeles police officers back in 1991 had “made the world a better place,” by bringing attention to the problem of police abuse.

Following the King incident and other scandals, LAPD entered a consent decree with the Justice Department that imposed major reforms, including more aggressive internal audits and officer training. But in the 20 years since King’s beating, allegations of police misconduct have remained a serious problem in several cities nationwide.

What impact, if any, did the King case have on the problem? “Not enough,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the criminal law reform project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Edwards said that better training has made the police more professional and that there are more opportunities for accountability with the proliferation of cellphone cameras. But, he said, “This is still a significant problem around the country.

“People that have to deal with excessive force are often the most disenfranchised, living in communities that don’t have a lot of political power,” he said. “A lot of things happen in those communities that people aren’t seeing.”

The most recent data from the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, which offers one of the only comprehensive accountings of misconduct allegations against the 18,000-some law enforcement agencies nationwide, showed a slight uptick in the number incidents of reported misconduct and a 6 percent increase in the number of reported incidents involving excessive force from 2009 to 2010 (the most recent years for which data is available).

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has taken on more active role in pursuing abuse allegations, which has brought some changes on state or city levels.

Last year, we noted that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division had 17 ongoing investigations into law enforcement agencies to pursue allegations of excessive force or discrimination — more than at any time in the division’s history. Those investigations are still open.

The DOJ also has entered into a consent decree to require major reforms, or a memorandum of understanding to address specific concerns, with seven departments: Los Angeles, Detroit, the Virgin Islands, Beacon, NY; Warren, Ohio; Easton, Penn.; and the Orange Country Sheriff’s office in California.

In Seattle, a federal investigation found last December that the Seattle Police Department engaged in “a pattern or practice of unnecessary and excessive use of force,” and that about 20 percent of the cases suspects’ civil rights were violated.

In Chicago, police paid $45.5 million in damages in cases of police misconduct between January 2009 and November 2011, according to a recent investigation by the Chicago Reporter, with 75 percent of those cases involving excessive force. Meanwhile, an independent commission set up to investigate allegations of two decades of torture by police has lost its funding after following up on only five cases. The court filings detail repeated, brutal abuse of suspects by police.

The Newark, N.J. police department is currently under investigation by the DOJ for an alleged pattern of excessive force and discrimination after the ACLU documented 407 allegations of police shootings, sexual assault, false arrests and other abuses.

And then there’s the investigation into police misconduct in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which we’ve been following since 2009 in our Law and Disorder project. The DOJ has accused the department of a “systemic violations of civil rights,” and is working to establish a consent decree with the department.  One of the incidents that drew the attention of the Justice Department: the conviction of five officers in the shooting deaths and cover-up of two civilians on the Danziger Bridge.

In September, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said the bridge shooting was the “most high-profile incident” since the beating of Rodney King.


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