It's a modern article of American faith: Metropolitan police departments have a history of conflict with their cities' minority citizens, conflicts that suggest police agencies trade evenhanded justice for heavy-handed contact with the public. In the recent past, police departments in Los Angeles, New York City and New Orleans have been taken to task for excessive force and have taken actions to correct the problem.
But in the last two years, according to the U.S. Justice Department, allegations of wrongdoing by police departments across the country have mushroomed to unprecedented levels. According to Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, at least 17 U.S. police departments are under investigation for various civil rights violations, "more than at any time in the division's history," Perez said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September.
A very recent example, in one of America's most storied precincts of liberalism and tolerance, symbolizes both the breadth of the problem as a national issue and the challenges facing its correction.
After an eight-month Justice Department investigation into allegations of excessive force by the Seattle Police Department, allegations made mostly by black and Latino citizens, U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan said at a Dec. 16 news conference that "there is reasonable cause to believe that the Seattle Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using unnecessary and excessive force, in violation of the United States Constitution." The department found that about one in every five use-of-force cases by Seattle police was unconstitutional.
As identified by the DOJ, the scope of deficiencies at the SPD is frankly panoramic. The department was faulted for lax oversight of policies and training on the use of force, the reporting of use of force and the amount of force to be wielded by officers; failure of supervisors to follow up on use-of-force cases; faulty methods of complaint investigation, intervention and discipline; inadequate policies on stopping pedestrians; and even poor performance on collecting the data needed to make a determination of bias.
"Many of these officers may have a perfectly legitimate justification for their activities, while others may not," Perez said in Seattle on Dec. 16. "We don't know the answer because the accountability systems have not been put in place."
The complaints filed this year came from the city's chapter of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and 33 other nonprofits and advocacy organizations spanning the demographic spectrum. Numerous incidents have aroused the suspicion and concern of minorities in Seattle — from an officer's punching of a teenage girl in a June 2010 jaywalking incident to the fatal unprovoked police shooting of a wood-carver in August 2010 and the use of pepper spray against peaceful Occupy protesters in downtown Seattle.
Seattle police Chief John Diaz pushed back against the DOJ findings. "Right now I don't find anything that would show me that there is a problem here," he said on Dec. 16 to KOMO, Seattle's ABC News affiliate. "This police department isn't broken."
A Widespread Problem
The Seattle Police Department isn't alone. Other police agencies under the federal microscope for alleged civil rights violations reflect a striking range of bias allegations, not only in the major population centers such as New York City and Los Angeles but also in smaller American cities, towns and territories.
East Haven, Conn.: This month the DOJ announced findings of racial profiling and unwarranted arrests and pedestrian stops by the East Haven Police Department against Latino citizens — violations that amounted to "a deliberate indifference to the rights of minorities."
The actions of officers, which a Justice Department official said were "deeply rooted in the police department's culture," are central to a case that April Capone — the former mayor of the town of 29,000 that is just minutes from New Haven — said could cost "millions and millions of dollars" in settlements, the New Haven Register reported on Dec. 20.
Miami: In November the Justice Department opened an investigation into a series of fatal shootings and violent encounters by the Miami Police Department. "In the past 16 months, we have seen nine police-involved shootings that are of concern and are the premise of our investigation," Perez said at a news conference.
"Since July 2010, MPD officers shot and killed eight young men and critically wounded a ninth man. By comparison, the country's largest police force, the New York City Police Department, had one fatal shooting for every 4,313 officers in 2010, while Miami had one fatal shooting for every 220 officers. Washington D.C., with a larger population and police force, had no fatal shootings by police in 2010, compared to five by the Miami Police Department," Perez said.
Puerto Rico: In September the DOJ announced findings of misconduct at the Puerto Rico Police Department — which, with 17,292 officers, is the largest U.S. police agency outside New York City. After a three-year investigation, the federal agency found that Puerto Rico police exhibited a pattern and practice of misconduct in violation of the Constitution and federal law, including beating people of Dominican descent.
"Officers all too frequently plant evidence during searches, rely on excessive force and intimidation as search aids, and proceed with searches even when knowing that the address or identity of the individual or some other pertinent information is simply incorrect," Perez said in September.
Portland, Ore.: In June the DOJ announced the start of an inquiry into allegations of excessive use of force by Portland Police Bureau officers — use-of-force incidents and officer-involved shootings apparently targeting the city's mentally ill and institutionalized people over the previous 18 months. The Justice Department investigation was expected to take about 18 months to complete.
Denver: In May the Justice Department said that it was at the "threshold stage" of deciding on an investigation of the Denver Police Department and the Denver Sheriff Department for civil rights violations after a decade of arrests involving alleged brutality and questionable fatal shootings, as well as the July 2010 death of Marvin Booker, a black minister who died in the city jail after a struggle with sheriff's deputies. Over that decade, the cases have resulted in $6 million in settlements.
Houston: In February ColorOfChange.org, an organization that advocates on behalf of African Americans, launched an email campaign calling for public outcry and a DOJ investigation into the actions of the Houston Police Department in the 2010 case of Chad Holley, a 15-year-old burglary suspect beaten by four HPD officers while eight other officers looked on.
"It's time to demand real accountability for the Houston Police Department — and when we do, it'll send a clear message to other departments with a similar problem," the email reads. "What happened to Chad Holley isn't merely an isolated incident — it's the result of a police culture in Houston (and in police departments across the nation) that places little value on black lives."
A Critical Tool in Reform
The Justice Department can bring any number of resources to bear in these investigations, maybe none as powerful as the consent decree, an agreement between a city and the Justice Department. It is a legally binding contract that often includes the use of federal monitors to assess the progress made in reforming behavior at police departments with a history of civil rights-abuse allegations.
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.