During the Obama administration, the Justice Department has ramped up its investigations into police at the behest of Attorney General Eric Holder.

Share story

If the Seattle Police Department feels singled out by the U.S. Department of Justice and its findings of an unconstitutional pattern of excessive force by officers, it shouldn’t.

It was one of three law-enforcement agencies in the span of a few days last month that were accused by the federal agency of violating the rights of the people they’re supposed to protect and serve.

When Assistant Attorney Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, disclosed the findings Dec. 16 in Seattle, the event was sandwiched between other news conferences to announce the Justice Department had found law-enforcement officers in Maricopa County, Ariz., and East Haven, Conn., had discriminated against Latinos.

Such “pattern and practice” investigations — so-called because they seek to identify unconstitutional patterns and practices by police — are on a steep upswing, according to a review of Justice Department statistics.

Experts on race, the law and police accountability say the rise in such cases reflects, in part, a disturbing increase in cases of police abuse across the country that can’t be entirely explained away by an aggressive civil-rights-minded attorney general or a change in the political winds.

“There is no question that there is a problem,” said Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and the author of more than a dozen books on police accountability, civil rights and police oversight.

“What is happening is that they are addressing it,” Walker said, something he says was done only sporadically during the Bush administration, which considered police misconduct a local issue.

The Civil Rights Division, he said, has doubled its number of attorneys since President Obama took office, has moved to complete the few investigations that were under way, and is opening new ones with regularity.

Last year alone, the division’s Special Litigation Section, which oversees pattern-and-practice investigations, has released findings of investigations into seven law-enforcement agencies, including Seattle. There were none released in 2010 and two in 2009.

When he was in Seattle last month, Perez said the division had 20 ongoing pattern-and-practice investigations nationwide.

The critics’ view

But critics say the Justice Department investigations, particularly those that focus on alleged police abuses, are politically driven and don’t necessarily reflect a growing problem among law-enforcement agencies.

“These reports aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a former civil-rights attorney at the Justice Department and now a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Institute for Legal and Judicial Studies in Washington, D.C.

Seattle has said it will implement the Justice Department recommendations, but von Spakovsky says cities under investigation often wind up doing so simply for political expediency.

He alleged that Attorney General Eric Holder and Perez have stacked the department’s Special Litigation Section with anti-police types.

As proof, he points to William Smith, chief of the division, who was brought in from the Legal Aid Society and who was a former attorney at the Prisoner’s Legal Service Project in Washington. “These reports are not the findings of objective, nonpartisan government lawyers,” he said. “That section is full of ideologues.”

Walker says the flurry of Justice Department reports points to the commitment of Holder and the arrival of Perez, whose confirmation was blocked for several months by Senate Republicans who feared he would be too aggressive.

Investigations are rare

The law enabling the investigations passed in 1994.

Since then, the Department of Justice has conducted about 60 full investigations — including the one in Seattle — that looked into a fraction of the nearly 16,000 police departments and sheriff’s offices nationwide. The Department of Justice points out that investigations remain rare, and generally are mounted only in cases where a preliminary review has turned up strong evidence of violations and local efforts to address them have failed.

The genesis of the law can be traced to the 1968 Kerner Commission report, released in the wake of race riots in Detroit and Newark, N.J. The report raised concerns about biased policing and considered how to address it.

It was followed in 1981 with a landmark report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, “Who is Guarding the Guardians? A Report on Police Practices,” which included evidence of troubling trends in the use of excessive force by police in minority communities.

It suggested a law was needed to allow the government to force change in police departments, much as it had in education and the prison systems.

Then came the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991 and the riots the following year when the officers involved were acquitted in state court.

Meantime, federal court rulings made it clear the government had “limited capability to address civil rights violations by police agencies,” according to a Justice Department report issued last year looking into the efficacy of pattern-and-practice investigations.

Among the first cities to be targeted by the Department of Justice after the passage of the 1994 law was Cincinnati, where deep mistrust divided the police and the African-American community. A 2001 lawsuit by the local ACLU and several community groups alleged that the deaths of several African-American men and disproportionate stop-and-search rates for blacks proved discrimination by the police.

A court-monitored consent decree took nearly seven years to fully implement, said City Manager Milton Dohoney.

But the end result, he said, “has been a great thing. … It not only helped us to improve our police, but it has drastically improved communications between the department and the community.”

Biggest problems first

Many of the early investigations focused on big departments with big problems — New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York City and Cincinnati, among others.

However, the most recent investigations appear aimed at smaller and mid-sized departments where profiling and use-of-force issues were thought to be minimal, such as Seattle and neighboring Portland, where the Justice Department announced an investigation in late 2011.

Gloria Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the author of the book “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” believes American cities are experiencing blowback from decades of pouring money and resources into law-enforcement agencies to fight the wars on drugs and terrorism, while police oversight lagged.

Going back just 15 years, she noted that President Clinton invested billions in local law enforcement to fight urban crime and the crack-cocaine epidemic. The flow of money continued through the post-9/11 Bush administration, which granted unprecedented powers to police and shifted the focus of the FBI and other federal agencies from public safety to national security.

Walker and Browne-Marshall say there is strong and growing evidence of widespread biased policing in the U.S., but accurate data needs to be gathered.

That is what the Justice Department has ordered Seattle to do in the wake of findings that immigrant populations, people of color and the mentally ill were particularly likely to be the target of excessive force.

Browne-Marshall said these groups have historically been considered “outlaws,” in the sense that they are different from those in power, and have a history of being victims of police abuse.

But von Spakovsky, of the Heritage Foundation, argues that the Justice Department overlooks the fact that the highest crime rates happen to be in urban neighborhoods that are predominantly black.

“There’s more crime, so more force will be used,” he said. “It has nothing to do with race.”

Video forced changes

The game-changer, Browne-Marshall says, has been the advent of the cellphone camera.

For decades, allegations of police abuses have often been unprovable: a “he-said, he-said,” with a police officer on one side and the word of the victim and maybe a few witnesses — often members of the same community — on the other.

Then came the irrefutable viral videos, and those allegations weren’t weightless anymore. In Seattle, many cases of alleged police misconduct examined by the Justice Department had been caught at least in part on video, including the fatal shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.

“There is political power in putting cellphone video up on YouTube,” Browne-Marshall said. “There’s actual visual evidence. It can’t be ignored by anybody.”

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com