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How Does the Federal Government Handle Prosecutions of Police Officers?

Jamil Dakwar,
Director, ACLU Human Rights Program
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February 24, 2015

Should we take the Department of Justice’s word on how federal prosecutions of police officers are being conducted and resolved, or do we need to see the data?

After a police officer is accused of a crime and the Department of Justice decides to investigate, virtually no data is available on how many officers are convicted or dismissed of these charges – or even what crimes police were charged with in the first place.

Recently during a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of Ohio Carter Stewart stated:

In the past 5 fiscal years, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has opened over 20 investigations into police departments to address unconstitutional policing practices—more than twice as many investigations than were opened in the previous 5 fiscal years… In addition to this civil work, we have criminally prosecuted 337 individual police officers for misconduct in the last 5 years. The Department believes in broad reform as a key tool to addressing racial tensions in the justice system.

While the Department of Justice provides detailed information on its pattern and practice investigations and settlements against police departments, very little data or documents have been provided to back up the numbers of federal criminal civil rights prosecutions or to see how they have changed over time.

The ACLU, in the fight for transparency and police reform, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Justice Department. The request is in search of information regarding the number of federal criminal civil rights prosecutions, including convictions, acquittals, and dismissal of charges brought against police officers within the last five years. Among other records and documents, the request demands data related to federal prosecutions for excessive use of force and killings of people of color and persons with mental disabilities.

In addition to the ACLU’s work, the U.N. has been very critical of the Justice Department’s failure to provide further information or statistics on the details of criminal civil rights prosecutions of police officers.

A fact the United Nations Committee Against Torture highlighted last November in its report to the United States:

While noting the information provided by the delegation that over the past five years 20 investigations were opened into allegations of systematic police department violations, and over 330 police officers were criminally prosecuted, the Committee regrets the lack of statistical data available on allegations of police brutality and the lack of information on the result of the investigations undertaken in respect of those allegations.

There remains an urgent need for national comprehensive data on police use of force and accountability measures taken to combat impunity. Providing more data regarding federal prosecutions involving police officers who abuse their power is a critical step toward building a culture of transparency and accountability for policing in America and helps the U.S. comply with its international human rights obligations, especially concerning policies and practices around the use of force by law enforcement officers.

Americans put a lot of faith in police. The Department of Justice should reward it by assuring the public that it does its very best to remove police officers from the job who can no longer be trusted with a badge and a gun. Democracy and public safety demand it.

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