The United States Justice Department has recently placed a stronger emphasis on monitoring unconstitutional activities by municipal police departments. This new emphasis has police departments scrambling to mount a criminal defense for their own actions.
In stark contrast to the typical activities of a police force (catching bad guys), police departments in several American cities are now in the awkward position of defending themselves against charges of wrongdoing, according to a recent report in the Sacramento Bee.
This week, for example, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division launched an investigation into alleged unconstitutional practices—specifically, the excessive use of force—by the Seattle Police Department.
The Bill of Rights expressly protects civilians from the use of excessive force by law enforcement officials, but incidents of police abuse are often unaddressed by federal officials.
Instead, victims of police violence often have civil courts as their only remedy, and these courts often pose significant hurdles for plaintiffs trying to prove that they were abused by cops.
As a result, the decision by the Justice Department to ramp up investigations into local police abuses suggests a heightened emphasis from the Obama Administration on cleaning up wayward police departments.
Of course, Seattle is not the only city facing increased scrutiny. This month, the Civil Rights Division considered filing criminal charges against police officers in Maricopa County, Arizona and New Haven, Connecticut for alleged instances of discrimination against Latinos.
Unfortunately, while these investigations represent shifting priorities in the justice department, many experts believe they have also been created by an increase of unconstitutional police work across the country.
Racial discrimination, in particular, has become a hot-button issue, as immigration and shifting demographic patterns, compounded by a struggling economy, have led many police officers to use unsavory tactics, such as racial profiling, in their everyday work.
Some critics, however, claim that the federal investigations are just for show, and that they rarely result in convictions or serious penalties for offenders.
Nevertheless, supporters of the Justice Department believe that investigators now have more ammunition to try rogue police, as the proliferation of video cameras has allowed investigators to access convincing footage of evidence of police crimes.
The rise of video technology has indeed allowed many victims of police abuse to bring charges they otherwise would not have been able to prove.
Still, investigators face a tall task when examining alleged instances of police brutality, as institutional inertia, regulatory capture, and the difficulty of getting police officers to testify against each other all muddy the waters for prosecutors.
But even if prosecutions are unsuccessful, police departments across the country may be deterred from certain illegal activities by the prospect of a more aggressive Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.