It was so automatic—so chillingly casual. That was the most frightening thing, say some criminal-justice experts, about Michael Slager’s actions in North Charleston, S.C., last week. It’s all there on the videotape: The victim, Walter Scott, starts to run, slowly. Without a pause, Officer Slager raises his gun and begins to fire at Scott’s back. One shot. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Slager pauses briefly, then squeezes off the eighth shot. Scott crumples to the ground. Slager radios: “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” Then Slager walks deliberately over to the mortally wounded man lying on his face, cuffs Scott’s hands behind him but does not administer any aid. Equally casually, Slager drops what appears to be his Taser next to Scott’s body.
The North Charleston video, which was replayed constantly on TV and video this week, put sharp new pressure on the federal government to increase its scrutiny of what many experts believe is endemic police abuse across the country, especially in black communities—an unseen decades-old abuse that is only now being rendered visible by a new generation of citizen-documentarians, average people equipped with cell-phone cameras.
“The secret is out now. We’ve pulled back the curtain,” says Bowling Green University Professor Philip Stinson, author of Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested, a recent survey that found that, apparently thanks to decades of inbred collaboration between local police departments, prosecutors and court systems—all of which tend to benefit mutually from arrest fees, ticket fines and so forth—almost no police are ever convicted of wrongly killing anyone or other abuses. By canvassing news databases, Stinson found only 59 arrests of on-duty police on charges of aggravated assault with a gun recorded in the entire country in the seven years from 2005 to 2011. Just 13 of those resulted in convictions.
“What’s so striking is the casualness of it,” says David Harris, a criminal law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a leading authority on racial profiling, of the North Charleston incident. “For the officer it’s literally a walk in the park. It’s ‘Of course I’m gonna shoot him.’ He doesn’t pause, he doesn’t make any hesitation. What it says to me is that in the culture of that police department this is no problem. And everybody knows that without that video, that officer would be out driving around in a patrol car right now. The ongoing assumption, without that piece of film, would be ‘He threatened me and I had to defend myself.’”
The cases seem to keep multiplying: Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and more. Vanita Gupta, acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told POLITICO on Thursday that the DOJ does not yet plan an investigation into whether there is a pattern of police violence or abuse in North Charleston—as it did in Ferguson—but she says a “perfect storm” of incidents and outrage has made the relationship between law enforcement and communities “front and center in the country in the way they haven’t been until recent times.”
Despite more than doubling the number of its investigations into police departments over the past five fiscal years—to more than 20 nationwide now—the Department of Justice has failed to keep up with these police abuses and address them as a national problem, critics say. Typically summoned only in sporadic cases surrounded by public furor—like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson—almost every DOJ probe has found a systemic problem of police and court abuse of minority communities, says Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights law firm.
But, he asks, what about the rest of the cities in the United States? “Where has the DOJ been in uncovering this? Where have the lawyers been? Where has the legal profession been? Under Obama, the DOJ has spent $80 million per year prosecuting medical marijuana cases, and not very much on crime by police.”
Indeed, out of the DOJ’s nearly $26 billion budget, the Civil Rights Division was allotted just $147 million in fiscal 2015; and of that, just $12.2 million was allotted to staff working on “effective and democratically accountable policing.” The Office on Violence against Women got $414 million. Drug enforcement got $2 billion. The prison system received $6.9 billion.
Only last month President Obama was in Selma, Ala., praising racial progress since the Bloody Sunday marches to Montgomery. But Sam Brooke of the Southern Poverty Law Center says that his organization found problems analogous to Ferguson’s in nearby Montgomery, where police set up harassing traffic stops in black neighborhoods. Such programs, he suggests, helped Montgomery consistently report municipal traffic ticket revenues three to four times that of other cities in Alabama.
Gupta, who worked on a number of police abuse cases as an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union before taking over as acting head of the DOJ’s civil rights division six months ago, says it’s simply not true that the Justice Department has been out of step. “The number of investigations into police departments under this attorney general is vastly higher than what it has been in previous years,” she explains. “I think he has done more for criminal justice reform in recent years than I could have possibly hoped for … from really reinvigorating the civil rights division to the Smart on Crime initiative, his leadership has been quite transformative.”
Much of that work, she says, predates Ferguson.
Of its 20 investigations, the Justice Department has entered into 15 agreements with law enforcement agencies, including nine consent decrees, to correct abuses. Cities as varied as New Orleans, Seattle, Detroit and Albuquerque, as well as smaller municipalities like East Haven, Connecticut, and Warren, Ohio, have all agreed to consent decrees to address glaring police abuses. And under a new program started in 2011, its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services has offered technical assistance to bring police departments closer to their communities in towns and cities as far afield as Spokane, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Baltimore, Fayetteville, N.C., and Salinas, Calif., says the Justice Department’s Mary Brandenberger.
Still, among the Justice Department’s critics today is Gupta’s former boss, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, who says that despite the promises made early on by an African-American president and his African-American attorney general, far too little has changed. “The Department of Justice of Eric Holder came later to criminal justice reform than I would have liked,” Romero says. And even when it did, announcing the Clemency Project in January 2014, it’s moved very slowly in reviewing files of federal prisoners—hardly more than 20 have been released. “We’re all kind of scratching our heads saying what’s taking them so long,” says Romero. On the contrary, the Justice Department has actually stood against early release of prisoners who have been found serving longer sentences than are warranted in other cases, he adds.
Others say Justice Department is doing the best it can with a problem that is still fundamentally a local and state issue. “They cannot be everywhere at once, and the DOJ comes in only if there is a pattern of practice or constitutional violation,” says the University of Pittsburgh’s Harris. “Given what they have in resources I think they do a spectacular job of finding the cases that matter the most.”
The systemic police abuse and violence, driven largely by a lack of accountability, often comes in the form of draconian policies of arrests and summons in minority communities, which are used as hapless cash cows for the police and justice system. It may have been no accident that Walter Scott was initially stopped by Officer Slager for an alleged broken brake light on his car, or that after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a federal investigation found that blacks there were being arrested, ticketed and fined into poverty.
According to a 2012 class-action lawsuit filed in Alabama, one private probation company used by 110 cities is used to extract revenue cost-free to the city—often from the poor who can’t afford good legal defense. Then, when they can’t pay, they’re charged huge fees. Danny Evans, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, says, “What happened in Ferguson is the blueprint for what’s going on in Alabama, and you have the same problem in Georgia, Florida and other states. These cities think they can turn their courts into revenue generators.”
A Justice Department probe into police abuses in Newark, N.J. found that 93 percent of all police stops of citizens were unjustified, says Karakatsanis. “If that’s correct, that’s 80,000 crimes. All of those stops are assaults committed by police.”
Police abuse is a problem that’s often politically complicated for the Justice Department to highlight, Karakatsanis says, because of its inherent conflict of interest in working with state and local law enforcement. As he says, “To view DOJ as a beacon of accountability is not correct. They depend on these cops to make arrests. All these local cops are part of DOJ-led federal task forces.”
Reliable data on police abuse is almost impossible to come by, and here too the federal government has failed to step up. In response to public outrage after the 1991 Rodney King beating, Congress passed a 1994 law that mandated an annual report on police violence. At the Justice Department’s request, the International Association of Police Chiefs (IAPC) conducted a pilot study. But according to John Firman, director of development of the IAPC, after a year the Justice Department shut it down after only 600 out of about 18,000 police departments in the country reported back. The law had no means of forcing cooperation, Firman added.
A Department of Justice spokesperson said that to comply with the 1994 law, the NIJ and Bureau of Justice Statistics later developed something called the Police Public Contact Survey, which is “designed to understand the nature and characteristics of citizen contacts with the police.” But that does nothing to ascertain when police use force incorrectly, says Stinson, who adds that he developed his own national database on police arrests and convictions using Google News’ search engine.
Now all of Washington may soon be forced to awaken to the issue, says the ACLU’s Romero. “We’ve never seen a moment of criminal justice like this,” he says. “We’ve been working on criminal justice for decades. The Miranda decision was our case. Police brutality was always a part of our experience. Now each of these incidents is a moment: Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown, South Carolina. The whole country just stops.”
The “Black Lives Matter” protests that swept the nation last fall and winter underscored the resonance of these issues in many communities. And, in Washington, D.C., a new left-right coalition is already emerging over skyrocketing financial and social costs of swelling prison and jail systems.
As Romero says, “I think it’s a moment where mainstream America is finally reckoning with the carnage of our criminal justice policy.”