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Police Brutality Under Wide Review by Justice Dept.

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« on: March 03, 2010, 07:20:52 am »

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« Reply #1 on: March 03, 2010, 07:21:49 am »

Police Brutality Under Wide Review by Justice Dept.
15,000 CASES OVER 6 YEARS Thornburgh and Civil Rights Chief Respond to Beating of Los Angeles Suspect
By Neil A. Lewis
Special to The New York Times


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Washington, March 14 - Responding to public outrage over the videotape of Los Angeles police officers beating an apparently helpless man, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said today that the Justice Department would review every police brutality complaint to the Federal Government over the last six years.

Department officials said the aim was to determine whether there were patterns of misconduct in local police forces, not to initiate new Federal prosecutions. Mr. Thornburgh said the National Institute of Justice, the department's research arm, would also study any correlation between the frequency of police brutality reports and the procedures and training programs of police departments.

Trying to Strike a Balance

John R. Dunne, head of Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, said the review came in response to complaints from several members of Congress, including those in the Black Caucus, who say some police departments are especially lax in maintaining discipline among their officers. Mr. Dunne said the department would review about 15,000 cases, looking for "any geographic or systematic patterns to the violence."

The Justice Department move was a finely calculated attempt to deal with the anger of lawmakers, civil rights groups and others over the Los Angeles case while not offending police officers and their advocates.

At a hearing in Los Angeles today, elected officials, civil rights workers and private citizens called for the resignation of Police Chief Daryl F. Gates. They accused him of tolerating and even encouraging brutality by police officers against black and Hispanic men. He did not respond to his critics there, but met later with reporters and repeated his contention that the beating was not part of a pattern.

Chief Gates said his department had nothing to fear from the Justice Department inquiry. "This department can withstand any investigation, and we welcome any investigation," he said. "We're very proud of what we've done."

The cases under Justice Department scrutiny involve reports of police misconduct made to the Federal Bureau of investigation and United States attorneys over the last six years and do not include those cases handled solely by local police departments.

Mr. Dunne said the Justice Department had always handled its police brutality cases on an individual basis, without analyzing where they were filed. This will be the first time the department has tried to group such cases geographically to see whether there are any patterns. It is not clear what the department will do if it finds heavy concentrations in particular police forces, beyond suggestions that have already been made: that they could recommend changes in training procedures.

Volatility, Violence and Guns

Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a Washington research group established to improve police practices, said he thought the use of excessive force was a growing problem. "I believe that there are more incidents of police use of force because of the volatility of the big cities, the violence and the big guns the police are up against," he said.

The Justice Department is preparing to bring civil rights charges in 14 police brutality cases, including one against an agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service accused of intimidating grocery store owners in Manhattan.

Mr. Dunne said the department was still investigating the Los Angeles incident. "We have several F.B.I. agents in the field on this case gathering evidence," he said, adding that it could later be presented to a grand jury.

In a Federal civil rights prosecution, there is no requirement that the victim be a minority member. A police officer or other official acting "under color of law" can be accused of depriving someone of such civil rights as the right to be free from seizure or assault.

Mr. Thornburgh ordered the study after a breakfast meeting today with Mr. Dunne and two members of the Black Caucus, Representatives John Conyers Jr. Of Michigan and Edolphus Towns of Brooklyn. They said they wanted the Federal Government to take a more active role in the police brutality issue after the national broadcast of a videotape of several white police officers in Los Angeles beating Rodney G. King, a black man lying on the ground.

Mr. Thornburgh said, "Those engaged in law enforcement must be among the first to assure the observance of the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens."

Mr. Conyers said the videotape demonstrated a "culture of violence" in the Los Angeles police force and shocked the country in a way that has rarely happened before. He said the incident should be used as a way to eliminate "a national problem from the law enforcement system."

A Congressional Study, Too

Mr. Conyers said that the General Accounting Office, the Congressional investigative agency, would also begin a study of police brutality, and that a House Judiciary subcommittee under Representative Don Edwards of California would begin hearings next week. Mr. Conyers said the subcommittee might seek testimony from Chief Gates at a later session to be held in Los Angeles.

Justice Department officials said that besides the 14 pending Federal civil rights prosecutions involving police officers or departments, 22 more cases were before Federal grand juries.

Mr. Thornburgh said that over the past three years the Civil Rights Division had brought, criminal charges against 98 law-enforcement officials. Sixty of those cases have been prosecuted, he said, and 45 have resulted in convictions.

Officials said there were about 2,000 active cases involving allegations of police brutality under investigation at any one time in the Civil Rights Division. An F.B.I. official said many cases were not reported to Federal officials because victims were often unaware that their mistreatment could result in a Federal prosecution.

The cases are difficult to prosecute, officials say, because evidence is hard to obtain, and victims who may be criminal suspects or prison inmates may not be credible witnesses.

"These are awfully difficult cases to prove," Mr. Dunne said in an interview. "Because of our experience in bringing these types of cases, it's difficult to convince a jury that a police officer used excessive force."

In New York, Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said police abuse was a serious problem and added that in the past six years only one officer had been convicted of brutality charges.

In the August 1988 riot at Tompkins Square Park, he said, it was hard to get indictments of police officers even with videotaped evidence. He noted that although more than 400 police officers were present and there were 121 complaints, there were only six indictments and no convictions.

Los Angeles acknowledged recently that it paid more than $6.3 million in 1989 in jury awards and settlements in response to complaints of police brutality. Mr. Conyers said the 1990 figure was more than $8 million.

Just today, a Los Angeles resident accepted a $50,000 settlement after police officers searching an apartment in a neighboring house threw a vacuum cleaner through his window. The City Attorney also increased the offer of a settlement to the owner of the apartments where the search took place, from $275,000 to $600,000, the owner's lawyer said; that settlement has not been accepted. The tenants had already settled from $3 million.

In Chicago, where there were about 2,500 complaints against the Police Department last year, one police official said the system was working already and suggested that a Federal review was not necessary. "I don't know what it is the Attorney General has in mind, but we're doing a pretty excellent job here ourselves," said the official, Gayle Shines, chief's administrator of the department's Office of Professional Standards.

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"He who controls others maybe powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still. - Lao Tsu
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