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Special Litigation Section Cases and Matters




APRIL 26, 1999


Good morning and thank you for having me.

Attorney General Reno recently spoke about how police officers do their jobs. Let me share with you some of her eloquent words: Police officers have one of the hardest jobs there is. A police officer is charged with ensuring public safety, but she or he is also empowered to use force and, if necessary, to take a life to protect others from death or great bodily harm. The police are there to protect us from crime, but they must protect our rights at the same time. And to do their work effectively, the police must have the trust and confidence of the communities they serve. They must develop a partnership and a relationship with the citizens they protect.

Professional, sensitive, and dedicated police officers have done so much across this country to make their community a far better place to live. In many communities police and citizens are working together to prevent crime and to build understanding and to bring people together.

The crime rate has fallen every year for the past six years in virtually every category. Policing has contributed to that drop. The thousands of community-oriented police officers who are on the streets, due to the president's COPS initiative, have made a difference. All across America neighborhoods are safer.

But some people, especially those in minority communities, are wondering whether our success in reducing crime has been due in part to overly aggressive police officers who ignore the civil liberties of Americans. . . . The issue is national in scope and reaches people all across this country. For too many people . . . the trust that is so essential to effective policing does not exist because residents believe that police have used excessive force, that law enforcement is too aggressive, that law enforcement is biased, disrespectful, and unfair. The Attorney General identified five areas that "will form the foundation of [the] efforts to foster police integrity and eliminate police misconduct." They are: 1) "Expand and promote the kind of partnership and dialogue which develops the mutual trust and confidence between police and the people they serve;"

2) "Insist on police accountability;"

3) "Ensure that police departments recruit officers who reflect the communities they serve, who have high standards and who are then properly trained to deal with the stresses and the dangers of police work;"

4) "Increase [federal] civil rights enforcement," and

5) "Take steps to gather the data that will help define the scope of the problem and measure our efforts to solve it." She has defined a large and significant task. To succeed, it will require the dedication and commitment of those in law enforcement: police chiefs and mangers working together with rank and file officers and the unions that represent them. And it will need support and contributions from community leaders and civil rights advocates who want to be part of the solution. That is why the Attorney General will be convening representatives of these groups and experts in police practices "to identify and share strategies that are working and to understand suggestions that can be implemented."

We have our work cut out for us. As the Attorney General's remarks suggest, there are many aspects of the Justice Department's program for combating police misconduct. What I have been asked to talk about today is the Department's civil enforcement program. We are doing very important work, and welcome your attention to it.

When Rodney King was brutally beaten by police officers, the Justice Department had the power to bring criminal prosecutions against those officers. And we did -- successfully prosecuting two of them. But we did not have the power to reform management practices of law enforcement agencies that countenanced such misconduct. In 1994, Congress recognized this deficiency and filled the void.

As part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the same statute that created the COPS program, Congress authorized the Department of Justice to file lawsuits to eliminate a "pattern or practice" of conduct by law enforcement officers that violates federal civil rights. 42 U.S.C. 14141. The statute's reach is very broad and so is our enforcement program. Examples of the types of systemic problems we address are: excessive force; improper searches; false arrests; discriminatory harassment, stops, searches, or arrests; and retaliation against persons alleging misconduct.

Two older statutes, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000d, and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 42 U.S.C. 3789d, together prohibit police departments receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin and religion in providing police services. Under these laws, the Justice Department can, among other things, initiate administrative investigations based upon complaints from individuals.

I will, however, focus my remarks on our new "pattern or practice" authority. Now that we have a congressional mandate, we have launched "pattern or practice" investigations in jurisdictions in which we have seen sufficient preliminary evidence of a systemic problem to warrant a closer look. In deciding whether to open an investigation, we gather information from a variety of sources, including federal and state prosecutors, criminal investigations or prosecutions of police officers, civil litigation, individual or organizational complaints, investigative reports of governmental or other bodies and accounts in the news media. A "pattern or practice" investigation may be launched only after the recommendation is reviewed and approved by the head of the Civil Rights Division.

Longstanding Department practice prevents me from discussing the specifics of any ongoing investigation. But I can tell you that all types of law enforcement agencies are involved -- large and small; urban, suburban, and rural. Our investigations are independent, thorough, and fair. As a general matter, the agencies we investigate have cooperated willingly with us. Indeed, just a few months ago, the Mayor and Chief of Police of the District of Columbia asked us to conduct an investigation of the police department's use of force -- an invitation we were pleased to receive and pleased to accept.

These are not simple investigations. The exercise of our pattern or practice authority must be based on competent, concrete evidence of systemic problems of great magnitude. Our investigations and our lawsuits are very different from criminal investigations and prosecutions. Our focus is management, not just the alleged bad conduct by problem officers.

So far, we have filed two lawsuits against municipal police departments seeking to remedy a pattern or practice of misconduct. Our first suit involved the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Bureau of Police and the second involved the Steubenville, Ohio Police Department. (United States v. City of Pittsburgh (W.D. Pa.) and United States v. City of Steubenville (S.D. Ohio).) In each, we were able to settle our claims by way of a consent decree -- an agreement of the parties entered as an enforceable court order by a federal district judge. Both consent decrees establish mandatory guidelines for the training, supervision and discipline of police officers, as well as receiving, investigating and responding to civilian complaints of misconduct. Both decrees have been implemented without violating existing collective bargaining agreements or impairing collective bargaining rights. We are proud that the decrees are already being used as models of "best practices."

We are finding that where a department has systemic problems, management systems exist that could help better train, supervise, monitor and discipline its officers. What we try to do in our cases is require implementation of these kinds of systems. For example, where a city has had many incidents in which officers have used excessive force, we would require the city to train its officers in proper techniques for avoiding and overcoming resistance, so that force is used only when necessary and only in appropriate ways. Where problem officers have escaped oversight or discipline for civil rights violations, we would require a comprehensive monitoring and supervisory system. Where civilians' complaints have gone uninvestigated, we would require improved procedures and policies governing internal affairs investigations. Or where stops, searches, or seizures are improperly based on race or ethnic origin, we would require auditing, training, and correction of police officers who engage in this discriminatory behavior.

These kinds of reforms work. Let me tell you about Steubenville, one of the department's covered by a consent decree with us. The department, with about 50 officers, had been plagued with civil rights problems for years -- reflected in nearly 60 lawsuits that cost the city about $870,000 in claims. About 18 months after entry of the decree, the City Attorney reported that for the first time in 23 years there were no pending lawsuits against the police department. In his words: "We're really beginning to see the benefits of the consent decree."

We know that the great majority of police officers in America perform their enormously difficult job with professionalism, integrity, and respect for the rights of civilians. But police managers must train officers, monitor them, supervise them and, where necessary, discipline them. Good officers need training and assistance in dealing with the enormous pressures of their jobs. Potentially problem officers need help and correction -- before they violate civil rights. And bad officers need to be disciplined and even fired, when necessary. The key is accountability.

The managerial tasks I have outlined can have enormous impact not just on civil rights abuses, but on effective crime-fighting. As Attorney General Reno noted, a bedrock principle of effective law enforcement is community support for the work of the police. Few things undermine that support as much as the perception that the police are abusing their power with impunity. Solve the problem leading to the perception, and you enlist community support for the police. We are confident our enforcement of the 1994 statute serves that goal. There are solutions to the problem of police misconduct, solutions that will aid not just the civil rights of civilians, but the effectiveness of policing.

We are fortunate today because the nation is paying attention to issues of police integrity and effectiveness. Managing police departments has been and will remain primarily the task of state and local law enforcement agencies. Our approach, therefore, is one of respect for, and appreciation of, efforts being made at the state and local level to enforce high standards of integrity and constitutional conduct among officers. Our goal is to ensure that those who enforce the law respect the rights of every person. We share the task of reaching this goal with the officers, themselves, as well as with those in local and state government and in the community. We firmly believe, working together, this is a goal we can and should achieve.

Updated September 14, 2023