Feds Won't Do Much About Brown Killing

The instant that 13-year-old Devin Brown was gunned down by a Los Angeles police officer following a high-speed chase, black leaders demanded a federal investigation. This is a standard demand every time there's a questionable shooting of an unarmed black. If community rage is great enough over the shooting, the Justice Department will authorize an FBI investigation. The FBI will probe the Brown killing. The investigation will determine if Brown's civil rights were violated. When a local district attorney refuses to prosecute cops that kill under dubious circumstances, then the feds can bring civil rights charges against them. They rarely do though.

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 cops who blatantly kill unarmed citizens. 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 increase in the skimpy number of police misconduct cases prosecuted by the Justice Department during the Clinton years. Despite boasts by Bush officials during the past presidential campaign that they have cracked down on police violence, Bush's scorecard is little better than Clinton's. The Justice Department prosecuted cops in only a tiny fraction of the police abuse cases that the FBI investigated.

The see-no-evil policy of the feds toward police violence comes at a time when the number of police abuse complaints nationally remains high. The Department gets about 15,000 complaints yearly. 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. It still has not issued a detailed and 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, Calif., and Amadou Diallo in New York City in 1999, and the threat of mass street demonstrations against police abuse, that Clinton spoke out against police violence in the waning days of his administration.

Federal prosecutors say they can't nail more killer 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 always 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. However, this is no excuse for federal prosecutors not to at least make the effort to prosecute more officers when there is 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 when there is 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 was right. While Bush has paid lip service to doing something about racial profiling, and touted his civil rights enforcement record, federal prosecutors have still not aggressively cracked down on police violence.

The refusal by federal prosecutors to go after cops who overuse deadly force continues the dangerous cycle of more shootings and more racial turmoil. That deepens the distrust and cynicism of blacks and Latinos toward the criminal justice system. The Brown killing in Los Angeles has sparked rage and further deepened cynicism among blacks toward the police. The feds don't help matters when they make noisy public pronouncements to investigate cops that are quick on the trigger, but do nothing more than that.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.