Federal Monitoring of Police Departments Protects People’s Rights

Many Americans trust local and state law enforcement to protect them.  However, when police departments abuse that trust, the F.B.I and the U.S. Department of Justice have the authority to recommend reforms and then monitor the department’s progress.

Police mistreatment of citizens is classified as “color of law” abuse, meaning the use of authority granted by a local, state, or federal agency to infringe on constitutional rights.  “Color of law” offenses include unlawful detainment and questioning of suspects, search and seizure of property, bringing of criminal charges, sexual assault, and the use of excessive force.

In 1991, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers brutally beat Rodney King, an African-American suspect, but were acquitted of charges of excessive force.  This case prompted a series of federal investigations that revealed significant misconduct in the LAPD and in other police departments throughout the nation.  With an increasing awareness of police misconduct, Congress included a provision in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that authorizes the Department of Justice to file civil lawsuits against law enforcement agencies that engage in a pattern of violating people’s rights and obtain a court order to monitor and reform them.

Since the passage of the act, the Department of Justice has taken a close look at police departments throughout the nation, most notably in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Baltimore.  After the Rodney King case brought LAPD misconduct to the public’s attention and the Rampart Scandal in 1997 revealed systemic race-based corruption in the department, the LAPD was forced in 2001 to consent to monitoring by the Department of Justice.

Earlier this year, the LAPD tried to end their federal monitoring, but Michael Cherkasky, an independent investigator hired by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in 2001 to monitor the LAPD, has urged the court to put an agreement in place that would end federal monitoring in three years.  U.S. District Judge Gary Feess has not yet reached a decision on whether or not to end monitoring of the LAPD.

While the LAPD remains under federal oversight, the Department of Justice has achieved major success in reforming other police departments.  After a decade of federal oversight, monitors commended the New Jersey State Police on their department’s improvement and state legislation has been introduced that will transfer monitoring to the state attorney general.

Similarly, the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland was released from Department of Justice oversight in February 2009, after five years of monitoring succeeded in reforming officer conduct.  According to Civil Rights Division Chief of Special Litigation Shanetta Y. Cutlar, through external monitoring, the department developed a “commitment to constitutional policing and fairness for all those who travel through its jurisdiction.”