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Bad Cops: Feds Have to Act, Not Talk

The U.S. probe in Inglewood must break a sad trend.

July 14, 2002|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press, 1998).

The instant that black activists saw the videotaped beating of 16-year-old Donovan Jackson by an Inglewood police officer, they demanded that the Justice Department investigate and prosecute the officer. The call for a federal probe has virtually been the mantra when police are accused of beating, assailing or gunning down young blacks. Black activists flat-out don't trust local police agencies to self-investigate. Nor do activists trust district attorneys, grand juries, police commissions or local officials--with their cozy relationship with police--to be any more fair and impartial when it comes to investigating the police.

The Justice Department supposedly is a far different story. Indeed, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft talked tough about the Jackson case and dispatched his top civil rights lawyer to handle a federal probe. This seemed like a sign that the Justice Department would do something about the beating. Unfortunately, that is probably wishful thinking.

Despite the wave of dubious police shootings and beatings of mostly young blacks and Latinos during the last few years, the Justice Department has done almost nothing to nail abusive cops. According to a 1998 report on police misconduct by Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group, federal prosecutors bring excessive-force charges against police officers in a minuscule number of cases involving allegations of police abuse. There was hope this might change when President Bush and Ashcroft pledged to take a hard look at racial profiling and police misconduct. But nothing much has happened.

The Justice Department has always had on the books a strong arsenal of civil rights statutes to prosecute abusive police officers. More often than not, however, it has taken major press attention, large-scale protests and even a major riot, such as the Los Angeles riots in 1992 after the Rodney King verdict, before the Justice Department has used its legal weapons. It was only because of the media focus on the police killings of Tyisha Miller in Riverside in 1998 and of Amadou Diallo in New York City in 1999, and the threat of mass demonstrations against police abuse, that President Clinton spoke out against police violence in the waning days of his administration.

Ashcroft almost certainly spoke up swiftly in the Inglewood case because angry protesters stormed the Inglewood City Hall demanding action, no doubt creating visions of another civil disturbance in the making.

Federal prosecutors say they can't nail more cops involved in questionable police violence because they are hamstrung by the lack of funds and staff, by victims who are perceived as criminals, a paucity of credible witnesses and the public's inclination to always believe police testimony. They also claim they are hemmed in by the almost impossible requirement that in order to get a conviction they prove an officer had the specific intent to kill or injure a victim.

These are tough obstacles, but no excuse. Federal prosecutors should at least make the effort to prosecute more officers when there is substantial evidence that they used excessive force. This is the legally and morally right thing to do. Such action would send a message to law enforcement agencies that the federal government will go after lawbreakers whether they wear a mask or a badge. More important, it puts police and city officials on notice that they must take stronger action to halt the use of excessive force in their departments.

The reluctance of federal prosecutors to go after cops who overuse force perpetuates the dangerous cycle of racial confrontation and deepens the cynicism of blacks and Latinos toward the criminal justice system.

Black activists did the right thing in demanding a federal probe, and Ashcroft did the right thing by answering their demand. However, more than words are needed this time.

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