HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Federal Civil Actions
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The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 included a new statute under which the Justice Department may sue for declaratory relief (a statement of the governing law) and equitable relief (an order to abide by the law with specific instructions describing actions that must be taken) if any governmental authority or person acting on behalf of any governmental authority engages in: "a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers...that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States."215 Police abuse experts had long recommended giving federal authorities the power to bring a civil action against any police department engaging in a pattern or practice of misconduct to enjoin, or direct the police department to end, abusive practices.

In April 1997, the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division, which is responsible for actions under the new law, reached its first consent decree with apolice department, that of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.216 In the consent decree, the city denies "any and all allegations" regarding inadequate training, misconduct investigation, supervision, and discipline, yet agrees to: establish a comprehensive early warning system; develop and implement a use-of-force policy that is in compliance with applicable law and current professional standards; require officers to file appropriate use of force and other reports; conduct regular audits and reviews of potential racial bias, including the use of racial epithets by officers; improve investigative practices when an officer has allegedly engaged in misconduct; apply appropriate discipline following sustained complaints; and appoint an independent auditor to ensure compliance with the consent decree. At the time of this writing, a dispute over the scope of the early warning system was ongoing between the department's police union and the city.217

In August 1997, a second consent degree was reached with a police department under the "pattern or practice" provision, with the city of Steubenville, Ohio and its police force.218 In its complaint, the Justice Department alleges the city and the police department have engaged in a pattern or practice of subjecting individuals to excessive force, false arrests, charges, and reports, improper stops, searches, and seizures.219 The complaint states that Steubenville officials have caused and condoned this conduct through their inadequate use-of-force policies; inappropriate off-duty-conduct policies; and failure to supervise, train, discipline, monitor and investigate police officers and alleged misconduct. Among the offenses, Steubenville police officers allegedly used excessive force against individuals who witnessed incidents of police misconduct, who were known critics of the department or were disliked by individual officers, and who were falsely arrested or chargedpersons believed likely to complain of abuse. Further, officers allegedly falsified reports and tampered with official police recorders so that misconduct would not be recorded.

The city agreed to improve training, implement use-of-force guidelines and reporting procedures, create an internal affairs unit, and establish an early warning system to track use-of-force reports, civilian complaints and civil lawsuits to identify officers requiring increased training or supervision.

The Justice Department is reportedly investigating or monitoring at least three other police departments - Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Philadelphia - to decide whether to seek judicial orders on respect for governing law. And in August 1997, Zachary Carter, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, announced that a preliminary "pattern or practice" investigation of the NYPD would be initiated.220 According to the Justice Department's Special Litigation Section, there are other police forces under scrutiny, but neither the Justice Department nor any monitored force has chosen to disclose information.221 Under the statute, there is no public reporting requirement, leaving the public with little knowledge of an inquiry. And even when a consent decree is reached, there is little effort by the Justice Department to publicize its actions.

Under the new law, the Justice Department is also able to investigate and enjoin abusive behavior in particular precincts or districts within a given police department. In many of the largest cities' citizen review agency and internal affairs reports, detailed statistical analysis is provided, broken down by district or precinct. Federal investigators should fully utilize the information of this kind that is available in many cities, but it appears they do not.222

215 "Police Pattern or Practice" 42 U.S.C. §14141

216 A judgment entered by consent of the parties whereby the defendant agrees to stop alleged illegal activity without admitting guilt or wrongdoing to force reforms in Pittsburgh's police force. United States of America v. City of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, and Department of Public Safety, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Civil No. 97-0354, April 16, 1997.

217 Kris B. Mamula, "City files civil action over police records system dispute," Tribune Review, Greensburg, PA, February 20, 1998.

218 The court approved the consent decree on September 3, 1997.

219 United States of America v. City of Steubenville, Steubenville Police Department, Steubenville City Manager, in his capacity as director of Public Safety, and Steubenville Civil Service Commission, Civil No. C2 97-966, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, August 28, 1997.

220 Blaine Harden, "Civil rights investigation targets N.Y. Police," Washington Post, August 19, 1997.

221 Telephone interview with Steven Rosenbaum, Chief, Special Litigation Section, Civil Rights Division, June 9, 1997. When the NYPD investigation was announced, Philadelphia was listed as a city that had been investigated under the new "pattern or practice" statute, yet that investigation was not mentioned by Justice Department officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

222 Ibid. According to Rosenbaum, these reports were not reviewed to ascertain whether certain precincts or districts deserved special attention. Rosenbaum did note that information gathered by the FBI when it investigates a possibly criminal act under Sections 241 and 242 can be used by the Special Litigation Section, with special rules to protect secrecy provisions of grand jury proceedings, where relevant. When asked whether there are any set guidelines for pattern-or-practice investigations, Human Rights Watch was told that each investigation, and subject of investigation, is different, soguidelines are not used.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch