Feds See No Evil When It Comes to Rogue Cops
President Clinton said recently he was “deeply disturbed” about police violence. He should be more disturbed about those who do almost nothing to punish it.
For culprits, Clinton need look no further than his own Justice Department, which has done little to nail rogue cops who have beaten and killed many people, mostly young African Americans and Latinos. According Human Rights Watch, an international public watchdog group, federal prosecutors in 1998 brought charges against police officers in less than 1% of the cases investigated by the FBI involving allegations of police abuse.
The see-no-evil policy toward police violence comes at a time when the number of police abuse complaints has soared. The nearly 12,000 complaints in 1996 almost matched the total number for the entire period from 1984-90. To better aid law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors tracking patterns of abuse, the Violent Crime and Control Act of 1994 authorized the Justice Department to collect data on the frequency and types of complaints. At the end of 1998, it still had not issued a report.
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, protests, even riots before it used its legal weapons.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors say they can’t convict more rogue cops because they are hamstrung by the lack of funds, staff and credible witnesses and the public’s inclination to almost always believe police testimony. They also claim they are penned in by the almost impossible requirement that, in order to get a conviction, they prove an officer had the specific intent to kill or injure a victim. 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 make more of an 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 would send a powerful message to law enforcement agencies that the federal government will go after lawbreakers whether they wear a mask or a badge.
Former Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark understood the importance of prosecuting abusive officers 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. Yet in Clinton’s radio address the president said nothing about the need for more aggressive federal prosecutions to crack down on violence by rogue cops.
This glaring omission by Clinton almost certainly will exacerbate the dangerous cycle of more shootings and more racial turmoil and deepen the distrust and cynicism of minorities toward the criminal justice system. This is a steep price to pay to get simple justice. And that is what Clinton should be most deeply disturbed about.
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