Diallo Challenges Feds' See-No-Evil Policy Toward Police Abuse

LOS ANGELES -- The moment the Albany jury delivered its verdict to acquit four white New York police officers of murdering African immigrant Amadou Diallo, black leaders demanded that the Justice Department bring civil rights charges against the cops. If past history is any guide, they aren't likely to get their wish.Despite the recent wave of highly questionable police shootings of mostly young African-Americans and Latinos, the Justice Department has done almost nothing to nail the murderous cops. According to a 1999 report on police misconduct by Human Rights Watch, an international public watchdog group, in 1998 federal prosecutors brought excessive force charges against police officers in less than one percent of the cases investigated by the FBI involving allegations of police abuse. The group also found that there was almost no difference in the skimpy number of police misconduct cases prosecuted by the Justice Department under moderate Democrat Clinton than under conservative Republican President George Bush.The virtual see-no-evil policy of the Feds toward police violence comes at a time when the number of police abuse complaints has soared nationally. The nearly 12,000 complaints in 1996 almost matched the total number for the entire period from 1984 to 1990. To better aid law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors track patterns of abuse, the Violent Crime and Control Act of 1994 authorized the Justice Department to collect data on the frequency and types of police abuse complaints. At the end of 1998 it still had not issued any report on the level of police misconduct in America.Worse, the Justice Department has long had on the books a strong arsenal of civil rights statutes to prosecute abusive police officers. Yet more often than not it has taken major press attention, large scale protests, and even a major riot, such as the L.A. riots in 1992 following the Rodney King verdict, before it used its legal weapons. It was only because of the intense media focus on the police killing of Tyisha Miller in Riverside, California, Diallo in New York City, and blacks in other cities, as well as mass street demonstrations in those cities and the threat by civil rights leaders to lead a major protest against police violence in Washington D.C. that Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno finally spoke out against police violence.Meanwhile federal prosecutors say they can't nail more rogue cops because they are hamstrung by the lack of funds and staff, victims who aren't perceived as criminals, credible witnesses, and the public's inclination to believe police testimony. They also claim they are pinned in by the almost impossible requirement that they prove an officer had the specific intent to kill or injure a victim in order to get a conviction. These are tough obstacles to overcome and since the Justice Department is in the business of winning cases, many prosecutors are more than happy to take a hands-off attitude toward police misconduct cases.Still, this is no excuse for federal prosecutors not to at least make the effort to prosecute more officers when there is substantial evidence that they used excessive force. This is the legally and morally right thing to do. And it sends a powerful message to law enforcement agencies that the federal government will go after lawbreakers no matter whether they wear a mask, or a badge.Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark understood the importance of prosecuting violence-prone cops even though there was virtually no chance of getting a conviction against them. He felt this acted as a "stabilizing force" to spur police and city officials to take stronger action to halt the use of excessive force in their departments. Clark is right. Yet in the few scattered remarks Clinton has made about police violence he has been stone silent about the need for more aggressive federal prosecutions to crack down on their violence.The refusal by federal prosecutors to go after cops who overuse deadly force almost certainly will continue the dangerous cycle of more shootings and more racial turmoil, and deepen the distrust and cynicism of blacks and Latinos toward the criminal justice system. This is a steep price to pay to get simple justice. And this is exactly what Diallo did not get in Albany.PNS commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" and the director of the National Alliance for Positive Action.

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