HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

Criminal Prosecution
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Both OCI and IAD representatives told Human Rights Watch that criminal prosecution of officers was rare, except for very high-profile cases (as described above). The Wayne County prosecutor's office does not record criminal prosecutions of police officers.

Federal prosecution is also rare. Deval Patrick, then assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department, visited Detroit during public hearings about police abuse held there in February 1996. He was asked to examine abuses, and promised to do so.

In 1996, of the thirty-seven cases decided by federal prosecutors for the federal district containing Detroit (Eastern District of Michigan), one was prosecuted(presented to a grand jury to seek an indictment). Between 1992 and 1995, thirty-nine cases were considered, of which three were prosecuted.50

The federal prosecution rates must be seen in context; a case in neighboring Monroe County demonstrates the difficulty of getting even the strongest cases prosecuted. The county has been the subject of many abuse complaints, often involving alleged racial bias. Kenneth Watson, an African-American, alleges that in January 1989, after being arrested for leaving the scene of an automobile accident,51 he was beaten brutally by Monroe County sheriffs' deputies.

He alleges that his mouth was taped and he was beaten while chained to a drain cover on the floor of his cell, bent backward and twisted by his shackles.52 For several hours - witnessed by other inmates - several deputies hit and kicked Watson, while using racial epithets. He reportedly suffered a broken wrist, a fractured skull, cuts, and bruises. Watson claims the beating only ended when he began vomiting and passed out.

During a deposition in 1992 for Watson's civil case, a deputy reportedly stated that it was common practice to immobilize inmates by cuffing their hands and ankles and shackling them to a drain grate in a basement holding cell; several other deputies reportedly confirmed this practice.53 When a captain was assigned to look into Watson's allegations, he reportedly told the sheriff he found "nothing out of the ordinary."54 One deputy who was involved was also implicated in several other brutality cases, including one that was settled for $300,000. In a civil lawsuit (which was settled in Watson's favor for approximately $600,000 in December 1992) Watson's lawyers contended that Monroe County did not take abuse allegationsseriously, and had not disciplined a single deputy.55 According to press reports, none of the deputies allegedly involved in Watson beating were disciplined, despite the large settlement and serious allegations. Nor did local prosecutors take action.

Thus, in a notoriously abusive sheriffs' department - where in 1992 Watson's civil damages and those of other cases of abuse totaled $1 million, or $10,000 per sheriffs' deputy - local authorities failed to discipline deputies involved, either administratively or through criminal charges.56 Watson's attorneys made repeated efforts to get federal prosecutors to prosecute the deputies, but no criminal prosecution has taken place at the federal level either.57

50 According to data obtained by TRAC from the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, Justice Department. Cases prosecuted or declined represent only a portion of the total number of complaints alleging federal criminal civil rights violations in each district in a given year. Several steps prior to this decision narrow down the number of complaints actually received to those considered worthy of consideration.

51 Watson's car hit a tree and he left it there.

52 Robin Erb and Gary T. Pakulski, "Violence inside its jail costing Monroe County," Toledo Blade, February 21, 1993; Said Deep, "Allegations of brutality rock Monroe," Detroit News, March 28, 1993; interview with an attorney representing Watson, Michael Haddad of Goodman, Eden, Millender & Bedrosian, August 16, 1995 and telephone interview with Haddad October 21, 1997.

53 Erb and Pakulski, "Violence inside its...," Toledo Blade.

54 Ibid.

55 Telephone interview with an attorney representing Watson, Michael Haddad, of Goodman, Eden, Millender & Bedrosian, October 21, 1997.

56 Said Deep, "Allegations of brutality rock Monroe," Detroit News and Free Press, March 28, 1993.

57 Interview with an attorney representing Watson, Michael Haddad of Goodman, Eden, Millender & Bedrosian, August 16, 1995 and telephone interview with Haddad October 21, 1997. According to press reports, the Justice Department did not find enough evidence to bring charges in the Watson case. "Feds drop probe in civil-rights case," UPI, May 12, 1993, [Wire Service].

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch