Round Two For Louima?
The instant the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the conviction of the three New York City cops accused of beating Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, Louima's attorney and black activists demanded that the Justice Department retry the officers. The court didn't rule out the possibility of another trial for one of the officers. But if past Justice Department action in thorny police abuse cases are any indication, Louima's case may be dead in the water.
Despite the wave of highly questionable police shootings of mostly young blacks and Latinos the past few years, the Justice Department has done almost nothing to nail shoot-first cops. According to a 1998 report on police misconduct by Human Rights Watch, an international public watchdog group, federal prosecutors bring 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 increase in the skimpy number of police misconduct cases prosecuted by the Justice Department during the Clinton years.
There was a glimmer of hope this might change when President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly pledged to take a hard and long look at racial profiling and police misconduct. Following three days of rioting in Cincinnati last April triggered by the slaying of 19-year-old unarmed Timothy Thomas by white Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach during a traffic pursuit, Ashcroft announced a full Justice Department probe into police violence in that city.
Months later there has been no word what, if any, action the Justice Department will take. When a Cincinnati judge summarily acquitted Roach of criminal charges in the Thomas slaying last September, the Justice Department gave no sign that it would even consider filing civil rights charges in the case. And since his initial vow to do something about police misconduct, Bush has been mute about the need for more aggressive federal prosecutions to crack down on police violence.
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. The Justice Department still has not issued a comprehensive report on the level of police misconduct in America.
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 killings of Tyisha Miller in Riverside, California in 1998, and Amadou Diallo in New York City in 1999, and the threat of mass street demonstrations against police abuse, that then President Clinton spoke out against police violence in the waning days of his administration.
But federal prosecutors say they can't nail more cops involved in dubious shootings because they are hamstrung by the lack of funds and staff, by the lack of credible witnesses and of victims who aren't perceived as criminals, and also by the public's tendency to believe police testimony. They also claim they are penned 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 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.
The prosecution in the Louima case was a near textbook example of the effect of even a failed or compromised prosecution can have on police conduct. The conviction and the 30-year sentence of officer John Volpe, the main perpetrator of the violence against Louima, still stands. This sent a strong message that unrestrained acts by violence-prone cops won't be tolerated.
This puts police and city officials on notice that they must take stronger action to halt the use of excessive force in their departments.
The reluctance of federal prosecutors to go after cops who overuse deadly force and commit abusive acts perpetuates the dangerous cycle of racial confrontation, and deepens the distrust and cynicism of blacks and Latinos toward the criminal justice system. The feds did the right thing in prosecuting the officers who assaulted Louima; now that a court undid their effort, let's see if they'll go for a round two in the case.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion web site, www.thehutchinsonreport.com. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).