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Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez Speaks at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement


Seattle, WA
United States

Thank you for inviting me to join you today. [Thank you to Kathryn Olson and Phil Eure] It is an honor to be here.

We in the Civil Rights Division share with you a common mission – a critical mission – to ensure that communities have effective, accountable, responsive and respectful law enforcement. There are some who contend that we can’t achieve all of these goals, and that we must choose between crime reduction and respect for the Constitution.

I categorically reject this false choice. Our police portfolio in the Division and the Department involves enforcing the laws, providing technical assistance and building partnerships with the goals of reducing crime, ensuring respect for the rule of law and enhancing public confidence in law enforcement.

This is my second tour of duty in the Civil Rights Division. I spent the better part of a decade as a career prosecutor, in Republican and Democratic administrations, prosecuting police misconduct cases and attempting to prevent such misconduct through training, outreach and education efforts. I did this work, and continue to do so, because I have profound respect for the police.

That may sound paradoxical to some, but I strongly believe the role of the police in American society is critical to the effective function of our democracy. I believe that the vast majority of police officers are hardworking and law abiding, and want to protect and serve.

But if a department lacks the appropriate internal and external mechanisms of accountability, it cannot protect and serve effectively. Your jobs are important, and the work of the Civil Rights Division is important, precisely because we want to empower and assist law abiding officers by ensuring that those officers who are abusing their authority are held accountable.

In case you haven’t heard, the Civil Rights Division is once again open for business. Our job is to enforce the civil rights laws – all of the laws – and to do so fairly, thoroughly and independently.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder have made the restoration and transformation of the Civil Rights Division a top priority. The Attorney General has called the Division the “crown jewel” of the Justice Department. As a result of the President and Attorney General’s leadership, and the support of Congress, the Division has received one of the largest infusions of resources in its history.

Combating police misconduct and working with departments and community and other key stakeholders to build model police agencies are important priorities, and I want to describe what we are doing on this front.

In short, we are:

  • Expanding our capacity to address critical policing issues;
  • Bringing more cases, both criminal and civil;
  • Providing more technical assistance;
  • Building new partnerships and expanding existing ones;
  • Actively listening to key stakeholders to inform our work, enabling us to do a better job; and
  • Using every tool in our law enforcement arsenal.

Let me describe these actions in greater detail.

We have hired more lawyers to expand our capacity on the criminal and civil fronts. As a result, we are bringing more cases on the criminal front. In recent months, indictments have been returned in some of the Division’s most important cases.

For instance, we have an unfortunately steady diet of criminal cases in New Orleans. The cases involve allegations of fatal shootings by New Orleans Police Officers followed by elaborate cover-ups.

In Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, four officers in the Shenandoah Police Department, including the Chief and his Deputy, were indicted on civil rights and related charges in connection with their efforts to cover up the racially-motivated murder of a Latino youth at a park in order to protect the alleged assailants, who were well known to the officers.

Make no mistake about it: we will aggressively prosecute officers who abuse their authority and commit criminal offenses. Criminal prosecution will always be an important component of our multi-faceted strategy to combat wrongdoing. But criminal prosecutions alone are insufficient to bring about sustainable reform.

Our pattern and practice authority, which came about in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident, is therefore a critical tool in our arsenal to address systemic challenges.

This authority is relatively young. The bill establishing our pattern and practice authority passed in 1994. There were very few cases during the prior administration. As a result, when I arrived in the Division last year, I initiated a review of our work in this area, and reached out to a wide array of key stakeholders to get their views on what was going well and what needed to be revamped.

I had conversations with police chiefs, community stakeholders, monitors, researchers and other organizations dedicated to building first class police agencies. A highlight of this listening tour was a day-long listening session in June with police chiefs, grassroots civil rights advocates, police organizations and a number of other key stakeholders. The Attorney General participated, and we learned a considerable amount about what is going right and what needs improvement.

We heard some heartening insights, such as one chief who said that the consent decree “set the floor for constitutional policing.” Another chief opined that the reforms memorialized in the consent decree helped to restore public confidence in the police department.

We also received constructive criticisms, including concerns that the process needed to be more inclusive, and too often involved lawyers talking to lawyers, rather than experts talking to experts in a spirit of problem solving. Our listening process continues, and I welcome any insights you have about how we can use our pattern and practice authority to catalyze sustainable reforms.

Since the enactment of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, the Division has authorized the “pattern or practice” investigations of 56 law enforcement agencies. The Division is currently investigating 17 police departments across the country and is monitoring 5 settlements regarding four police agencies.  

Before opening any pattern or practice investigation, the Division conducts a preliminary inquiry to determine whether a full investigation should be authorized.  Since 1994, we have completed preliminary inquiries of well over 125 law enforcement agencies; in more than half the instances, we decided there was not a sufficient basis to open a full investigation. 

Our investigations are thorough and complex.  With the assistance of former police chiefs and law enforcement executives who serve as our expert consultants, we determine whether a police agency has engaged in a pattern or practice of civil rights violations.  And, if so, we work with the jurisdiction to identify and develop remedies tailored to address specific violations uncovered.  

In conducting investigations, we seek to gather facts about the police department’s operations from a diverse variety of sources, including community stakeholders, advocacy groups, the faith community, the police department, police unions, and, of course, citizen review boards (if in existence). 

In learning about a department’s operations, we carefully review policies, procedures, attend training, interview an array of officials and rank and file officers, participate in ride-alongs, and review voluminous documents.

In an effort to be transparent and to communicate cross-cutting issues to the wider law enforcement community, we post Technical Assistance letters on the Division’s website.  These letters provide a detailed assessment of a particular police department’s practices but also our recommended best practices.  In a number of instances, we have used these letters to encourage a particular police agency to solicit community input in making policy and procedure changes.  In departments that have civilian review boards, we have occasionally given suggestions for how to be better incorporate such boards into the department’s overall operations.

When constitutional violations are uncovered, the Division typically seeks formal resolution of its investigations through written settlements to ensure that systemic reform takes place and that specific issues identified during the investigations are remedied appropriately.  The Division monitors the police departments until it is satisfied the jurisdiction has addressed the outstanding issues.  To date, the Division has obtained 19 settlement agreements. 

Pattern and practice investigations are not gotcha exercises. Our thorough, comprehensive investigations are conducted with three goals in mind: reducing crime, increasing public confidence and protecting the rule of law.

Put simply, we want to make law enforcement better. When the Justice Department shows up to investigate a law enforcement agency, our goal is to work cooperatively with law enforcement, local officials and community leaders.

A great example of this approach is perhaps our most high-profile investigation currently underway: the New Orleans Police Department.

This is not the first time we have been to New Orleans. We were there about a dozen years ago, conducted a pattern and practice investigation, and reached certain understandings. Some temporary improvement occurred, but the improvement was not sustained, and there is now an acute crisis of confidence in the community.

In May of this year, the new mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, wrote to the Department calling for an independent review of the NOPD’s policies and practices as part of the City’s efforts to reform the NOPD.

On May 17, the Division initiated a pattern or practice investigation of the NOPD to assess allegations of police misconduct, including use of excessive force, unconstitutional searches and seizures, discriminatory policing, and other misconduct ranging from impermissible firearms displays to perjury, theft, failure to police, and domestic violence. 

Since opening its investigation, the Division has conducted numerous tours with police practices consultants to interview witnesses, observe police operations, and conduct community meetings.  The Division is working closely with City officials and other stakeholders, including the Independent Police Monitor of the New Orleans Office of Inspector General.  The Independent Police Monitor is an independent, civilian oversight agency responsible for reviewing misconduct investigations conducted by NOPD.

This level of cooperation from the city is ideal – we work best when we can cooperate with the community, with its leaders and with the people on the ground. We have found that this approach is often welcomed by police departments and officers – who often are aware of problems they would like to improve and view Department of Justice investigations as an opportunity to get the resources, training and attention they need to make those improvements.

Working collaboratively and inclusively in New Orleans does not require us to compromise our independence. Nor will it stop us from asking the tough questions and probing deeply to understand the precise nature of the challenges.

New Orleans has some deep-seated challenges, but I have a deep optimism that working collaboratively, we can identify the problems with precision and devise and implement a blueprint for reform that will reduce crime, ensure accountability and respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, and restore public confidence in the police.

Changing the organizational culture is not easy and it takes time; but it can and will be done in New Orleans. The Los Angeles Police Department is a great example of a police organization that had multiple, deeply-rooted challenges, but underwent a wholesale process of reform and has made substantial strides. As a result of the reforms implemented in L.A., public satisfaction with the Department increased, crime decreased, and the quality and quantity of enforcement activity increased. In other words, the police did not simply sit in their vehicles and avoid contact with the public. Quite the contrary, they aggressively enforced the law. With strong police leadership and strong police oversight, cities can benefit from respectful and effective policing.

In most cases, we are able to work cooperatively with the law enforcement agency.

Of course, we will not hesitate to take action when a law enforcement agency under review refuses to cooperate.

The Department began a preliminary inquiry of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in June 2008, focusing on discriminatory police practices, unlawful searches and seizures and national origin discrimination in MCSO facilities, including failure to provide meaningful access to services to persons who are limited English Proficient.

The Sheriff’s office has refused, repeatedly, to allow access to many critical documents and records. After exhausting all other options, we recently filed suit to compel the Sheriff’s office to provide that access – which we contend they are required to do under agreements they signed upon receiving federal money.

The Maricopa case involves both our pattern and practice authority and our authority under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI provides that entities receiving federal financial assistance cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. We have used our authority under Title VI to address issues of racial profiling and discriminatory policing, and we will continue to do so.

The Division also enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which addresses discrimination in employment. We have a steady diet of cases involving hiring and promotion practices of police departments. Our goal is to ensure that departments hire and promote the most qualified people for the job. If we address challenges at the front end, we can avoid problems at the back end.

So, as you can see, we have many tools in the Civil Rights Division to promote effective policing. We are also working closely with our partners in the Department of Justice, including the Community Oriented Policing Services and the Office of Justice Programs, to ensure that the full array of our Department’s tools can be utilized to assist departments and communities. Our DOJ partners, for instance, are providing important assistance in the New Orleans Police Department matter.

But we also need partners in the communities – and you are those partners. We can all be more effective if we work together: NACOLE members provide not only expertise in citizen oversight that DOJ can learn from, but also help DOJ understand individual communities and the particular challenges they face. I encourage you to let us know when you see problems in your communities. In the event of criminal incidents of violations of civil rights, we need to know as soon as possible. When you see a department with systemic problems, we encourage you to gather information and provide it to us.

We in turn may be able to help with the most intransigent Departments you face: where a Department is unable or unwilling to work with the community and civil rights are being violated because of it, we can step in, resources allowing, and employ the many tools at our disposal.

Everybody has an important role to play. I am a firm believer that to build effective, accountable police departments, there must be multiple internal and external mechanisms of accountability. Some of the best policing is that which comes from within. As a result, we will continue to work hard to ensure that police chiefs set the proper tone, as Chief Bratton did in Los Angeles, and that he first line supervisors and internal affairs units and others within departments buy into the culture of accountability.

There is an important role for civilian oversight, and departments should embrace, rather than fear, such civilian and community involvement. There is no one cookie cutter approach to building effective, accountable departments. There are no quick fixes or shortcuts. Reform takes time, persistence, careful planning, courage, leadership and inclusion. The Department of Justice remains fully committed to working collaboratively with all stakeholders to ensure more effective, accountable policing for communities nationwide.

As I said before, we in the Civil Rights Division have a great amount of respect for the law enforcement officers around the country. We know they very often put their lives on the line on behalf of the people in their communities. We know that they go to work every day with their sights set on protecting public safety and enforcing the law. Our goal is to help them to better carry out those critical missions.

Thank you.

Updated November 6, 2014