Obama administration cracks down on police abuse, draws challenges

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, formerly the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Divison of the Justice Department, speaks as President Obama listens at the White House.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, formerly the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Divison of the Justice Department, speaks as President Obama listens at the White House.

(Michael Reynolds / EPA)

Dennis Spaulding, a baby-faced “bully with a badge,” as the FBI called him, was in the middle of a raid against newly arrived Ecuadorean immigrants when he made a costly mistake. He arrested a priest.

Father James Manship, his clerical garb covered by a big winter coat, was videotaping Spaulding and other officers who, according to federal prosecutors, were illegally searching My Country Store, a Latino grocery in the largely Italian suburb of New Haven.

Manship took video of his own arrest and collected 23 affidavits detailing what he believes is a pattern of abuse against his mostly Latino congregation. He handed the complaint to the U.S. Justice Department in 2009. The timing was perfect.


In the previous four years under President George W. Bush, the Justice Department had stopped taking police departments to court over allegations of misconduct or violations of civil rights. But Thomas Perez, a liberal former Justice Department lawyer, had just been nominated to take over the civil rights division by President Obama, and he was determined to play hardball with rogue cops and departments.

In the nearly seven years since Obama came to office, his Justice Department has investigated 21 police departments -- big departments, including New Orleans and Detroit, and small ones, such as East Haven and Ferguson, Mo.

But rather than reach informal agreements to correct misconduct, as the Bush administration often preferred, most of the cases under Obama ended up in court, either in settlements approved and monitored by a judge, or, in a few examples, with lawsuits filed by the federal government against police departments and officers.

“Under Bush, the Department of Justice took the view that they could not force, or did not want to force, police departments into court,” said Stephen Rushin, a professor at the University of Alabama Law School and an expert on federal enforcement of police reform. “Under the Obama administration, they take the view that if a city isn’t willing to play ball, that the DOJ will go to court and force that city to comply.”

The department’s civil rights division has relied heavily on a 20-year-old enforcement law, passed in the wake of the 1991 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, using it as a legal “hammer” to pressure police departments into signing court-enforced settlement agreements and do extensive monitoring to measure their progress, said Joshua Chanin, a professor at San Diego State University. “The Obama administration is using it more actively than past presidents have,” he said.

Many on the left applaud the new, tougher approach, saying it has sent a strong message to local law enforcement agencies that misconduct, abuse and overzealous or racist behavior will not be tolerated.


But others question whether the department, with only about 18 lawyers to oversee roughly 16,000 police departments, is making a dent in the problem.

The Obama administration is also facing a backlash over its tactics. Heather Mac Donald, author and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said the Justice Department has effectively “declared open season” on police departments.

A little-noticed federal court ruling in August held that the Justice Department’s special litigation section, which handles investigations of police departments, had overreached in charging a North Carolina sheriff’s office with discriminating against Latinos.

Federal District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder said it had relied on statistical evidence of discrimination -- a mainstay of such cases -- without putting on a single witness to testify that the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office was discriminating against Latinos as charged. The decision is being appealed.

“This sheriff did not want to fold,” said Chuck Kitchen, the lawyer for Sheriff Terry Johnson. The Justice Department lawyers were “very young liberal attorneys who had a tendency to try and see things that were just not there,” he said.

Justice Department officials declined to comment on the case pending their appeal.

It was not only the first loss for the elite section, it was the first time a law enforcement department had even dared to take the Justice Department to trial.


“This raises a big concern,” said Rushin, the Alabama law professor. “It’s the first time the DOJ has really been challenged and they lost. The real question is, will more cities or counties decide it is worth their time to challenge the DOJ findings.”

Some critics say the department is just too aggressive.

“The Department of Justice is engaging community after community in what seems like an oppressive bargaining process where you know they are going to sue and get you [into a] very, very, costly back-and-forth from which you will certainly lose,” said Ron Hosko, a former assistant FBI director and president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal support to police accused of misconduct.

Others note that the crackdown on police misconduct has not prevented what appears to be a surge of police shootings of young black men in Missouri and elsewhere that have roiled the country in the past 15 months.

Justice Department officials and legal experts say that such shootings have been taking place all along and are only now receiving attention because of cellphone videos and heightened interest in the press. They defend the department’s legal strategy, saying it has prompted some police departments to voluntarily come to them to seek help, using settlements with other departments as a model. Baltimore, for example, asked the Justice Department to review its policies and procedures even before the death of Freddie Gray in April.

“It may feel like the problems are worse, but actually I think it’s just that people are paying more attention to these things today,” said Vanita Gupta, a long-time American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who now heads the department’s civil rights division, in an interview. “We’ve got phones that capture things on video, we’ve got social media. It’s a different environment. For a lot of communities of color, they wouldn’t necessarily say that things are worse today. It’s just that the country’s paying attention to these issues in a way that maybe we haven’t in recent years.”

Gupta said that police chiefs are coming to the Justice Department seeking help with some of the techniques used in its other consent decrees, such as how to teach de-escalation techniques and track data on racial disparities. “I think those are things that are very much at play today that maybe hadn’t been in prior years.”


The difference between the George W. Bush and Obama administrations is not in the number of police department investigations -- Bush opened 23, Obama 21 so far -- but in how they were resolved, officials say. For example, the Bush Justice Department closed 13 without taking further action, according to Justice Department data. The current administration has closed few.

Among the actions under Obama were two minor cases in California, one against the Inglewood Police Department and another involving the L.A. Sheriff’s Department in in Antelope Valley.

Also, while the Bush administration used nonbinding memorandums to resolve differences, the Obama administration has mostly used formal consent decrees, enforced by a federal judge and often overseen by a team of outside monitors, according to Gupta and Jonathan M. Smith, the former head of the special litigation section.

Depending on the problem, such agreements typically require extensive statistical reporting on the use of force and citizen complaints, and expensive retraining to teach police how to better respect civil rights and de-escalate tense situations.

Another hallmark of Obama administration agreements has been the use of benchmarks for community engagement.

“The real difference is the way cases were handled,” said Smith, who left the special litigation unit earlier this year. “There is not a lot of evidence that the [memorandums] brought about permanent, lasting change. We changed the model.”


One of the earliest and best known federal interventions involved the Los Angeles Police Department under President Clinton after the Rodney King case.

In many of the places where the Obama Justice Department has intervened, it is credited with bringing about substantial change.

In East Haven, a working-class city of modest two-story clapboard houses on a perch of Long Island Sound, the results have been dramatic.

Three years ago, East Haven signed a tough court-enforced reform agreement with the Justice Department, and last year after a three-week trial, Dennis Spaulding was sentenced to nearly five years in prison after being convicted of conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of Latinos, making false arrests and using unreasonable force. Three other cops, including John Miller, their sergeant, also went to jail.

East Haven shopkeeper Marcia Chacon, 43, who broke down with emotion when Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch came to visit in July, described in an interview the years of harassment and abuse her family and customers suffered at the hands of police. The police would sit outside the store she runs with her husband waiting for customers to come out, then impound their cars on what advocates said were trumped-up charges. If they protested, they were beaten and arrested, she said.

The police harassment nearly bankrupted her store, she said.

But “now it’s good, everything has changed,” Chacon said. There is a new police chief and deputy, a community relations officer who speaks Spanish, and 50% of the force has left, with many of the new recruits coming from minority communities.


Frank J. Riccio, Spaulding’s lawyer, said in an interview that his client and other police were investigating “rampant fraud” in East Haven, where immigrants were allegedly using illegal, out-of-state license plates on their cars. “Some members of the East Haven Police Department were simply trying to enforce the motor vehicle laws,” he said. The case is under appeal.

Manship, in a lengthy interview at the rectory, said he is worried about what will happen when the consent decree expires in a little over a year. He noted that East Haven’s mayor is still Joseph Maturo, who presided over the former police department. When his officers were first arrested and a reporter asked Maturo what he would do for the city’s Latino community, he quipped, “I might have tacos when I go home.” The comment drew widespread criticism. Maturo declined to be interviewed.

Manship, a 51-year-old former engineer who was born in Connecticut, warned that once the Justice Department oversight ends, the police could return to the former behavior. “It doesn’t take long to ruin a police department,” he said. “There is nothing that says this can’t happen again.

Twitter: @timphelpsLAT