Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said Monday that the goal of the Department of Justice’s investigation of allegations of civil-rights abuses by the Seattle Police Department was to ensure that crime-fighting activities are accomplished with accountability, respect and trust.
The Seattle investigation is one of several similar inquiries. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division also is investigating police operations in Denver, New Orleans and Newark, New Jersey.
“Our goal with this investigation, as with all of our police pattern and practice investigations, is simple,” Perez said on Monday. “To ensure that the community has an effective, accountable police department that controls crime, ensures respect for the Constitution, and earns the trust of the public it is charged with protecting.”
The Department of Justice is sending a message that systemic harassment, false arrests, and excessive use of force will not be tolerated, Perez said.
A number of studies, most recently in New York and Houston, have consistently concluded that the majority of citizens stopped or harassed by police are black and Hispanic.
The Seattle investigation comes after the Department of Justices’s preliminary review into whether police there engaged in a “pattern or practice” of violations of the Constitution or federal law. The investigation will include a thorough examination of the department’s policies and practices, as well as records review and field observation of police officers. The Department of Justice will also interview police department leaders, rank and file officers, and community citizens.
Such “practice and patterns” investigations are an outgrowth of the Rodney King episode of 1991, in which white Los Angeles police officers beat King while allegedly referring to him by racial epithets.
Three years later, Congress passed legislation that allows the Department of Justice to sue police departments if there were a pattern of violations of citizens’ constitutional rights. These include discrimination, illegal searches, and excessive force.
Police departments undergoing such investigations often will agree to reforms rather than risk a Department of Justice lawsuit; however, when violations are found to be egregious, as was the case in New Orleans, the investigations lead to prosecutions.
Several New Orleans officers were convicted for their involvement in the killings of innocent residents during the tumultuous days following Hurricane Katrina. The Department of Justice also determined that the police department there employed racial profiling, engaged in unconstitutional arrests, and used excessive force.
In Seattle, an episode surrounding a robbery investigation is reminiscent of the Rodney King incident. A video shows a Seattle policeman stomping the head of a Hispanic detainee and yelling, “I’m going to beat the f*****g Mexican p*** out of you, homey!” The man attacked by the officer had not been involved in the robbery and was eventually released.
In Newark, officers allegedly threatened to throw a juvenile over a bridge if he did not confess to a crime. The Newark office of the American Civil Liberties Union contends that the officers beat the teenager and urinated on him. Later, the soiled T-shirt the young man produced as evidence was determined to be missing by the department’’s internal affairs division.
The Obama administration’s focus on ensuring police departments operate within the law is a clear shift from that of the department under President George W. Bush. In the Bush era, the Department of Justice concentrated most resources on terrorism investigations.