The Epidemic of Police Brutality
The results of an investigation in Seattle are but the latest example of a troubling trend.
In November 2000, Los Angeles entered into a consent degree with the DOJ in the wake of the Los Angeles Police Department beatings that provoked the Rodney King riots. By mid-2009 the LAPD had begun to turn around. In a June 2009 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, two members of the ACLU praised the department. While acknowledging that the LAPD had more progress to make, they said "the LAPD has made substantial strides in changing the culture of the department."
The consent decree -- a kind of nuclear option for the DOJ -- may be the most viable option for another police department with a troubled past.
In May the Justice Department opened an investigation of the Newark Police Department in New Jersey and the alleged use of excessive force, as well as officers' possible retaliation against civilians who document police actions.
By August, speculation was growing among advocacy groups and law-enforcement experts that a consent decree in Newark was a strong possibility. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin at the DOJ told the Newark Star-Ledger in August that the increased use of consent decrees was part of a "reinvigorated enforcement of many of our civil rights laws."
It's safe to say that the city of Seattle probably heard footsteps. In a Dec. 21 letter to the ACLU of Washington office, and no doubt trying to keep the initiative for making changes on the city's own terms, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced that, effective Jan. 4, 2012, the Seattle Police Department "will implement a system of consistent supervision of patrol officers," as well as teams to investigate the use of force by SPD officers and to review such cases after the fact.
"We have heard from the public and now the federal government that more must be done," McGinn wrote, expressing a sentiment that other cities and their police departments would do well to endorse. "We agree. Let us be very clear: We are committed to reform. This process of change cannot wait."
Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root and the author of American Bandwidth, on the Obama campaign and presidency.