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There are many similarities between Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Both were killed by the police. Both were unarmed. In both cases, grand juries refused to indict the officers involved in their deaths. And, both decisions sparked nation wide protests.

But there are key differences as well, the main one being ambiguity.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened in the Michael Brown case. These conflicts have resulted in two strikingly divided narratives which run the gamut from self defense to cold blooded murder. Because there is no video of the incident, we can’t verify exactly what happened. That’s why many people have called for the increased use of body cameras for police officers.

But Eric Garner’s death calls that theory into question.

Unlike Michael Brown, there is no ambiguity about what happened to Eric Garner. The world knows exactly what happened because Eric Garner’s death was filmed in its entirety. And yet, when presented with that evidence, the grand jury still wouldn’t indict.

To many people, this wasn’t a surprise. Instead, it was direct proof of something they had long feared – that cops could get away with murder, even if it was caught on tape. Eric Garner’s death made people wonder, “What good are body cameras if the video evidence gets ignored in court?” But an even better question might have been, “What good are the courts if that video evidence was not enough to even get a trial?”

Feds to the Rescue!

Citizens and activists with zero faith in their local officials started demanding federal intervention. In St. Louis, protester’s demanded:

  • A federal government intervention to hold police accountable;
  • A federal mandate that all situations in which police use deadly force towards civilians are handled by a special prosecutor;
  • Immediate demilitarization of all local police departments

And the Ferguson group Hands Up United asked for:

Eric Holder to use the full resources and power of the Department of Justice to implement a nationwide investigation of systematic police brutality and harassment in black and brown communities.

Where local systems had failed, these people believed the federal government could prevail. And, to some extent, they got their wishes. Both the Ferguson and New York police departments became targets of Department of Justice investigations. But you know what they say… be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

Dawn of the Consent Decree

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division carries out investigations of local police forces through:

…authority granted by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which gives DOJ’s Civil Rights Division authority to investigate state and local law enforcement agencies that it believes have unconstitutional policies or engage in unconstitutional patterns or practices of conduct.

Instead of looking at specific crimes, the investigations are designed to identify widespread corruption:

The law is intended to address systemic issues, rather than individual complaints. The alleged misconduct cannot be an isolated incident. And there is no private right of action under the 1994 law; only the Justice Department is given authority to launch investigations and litigation under this statute. The law arms DOJ with the authority to file civil lawsuits against local governments in order to force them to adopt reforms. [emphasis added]

In other words:

  • They can’t sue individual people
  • They can’t investigate “isolated incidents”
  • No one goes to jail
  • The taxpayers foot the bill

That’s the punishment for uncovering widespread, systemic corruption.

Because the government makes it so easy, many places just volunteer for the punishment, choosing to “settle these cases before they go to trial or before a lawsuit is filed.” As a result, they are forced to accept something called a consent decree.

A consent decree is “an agreement or settlement to resolve a dispute between two parties without admission of guilt.”

Agreeing to a consent decree allows police departments to “avoid potentially divisive and costly litigation” as well as maintain a positive public image. However, it also allows them to move forward without admitting any guilt. That’s why, even though the cost of complying with a consent decree can be high, it is often cheaper and easier than going to court.

The requirements of a decree are based on the findings of the DOJ investigation. They are submitted to the court in writing, and once approved by the judge, become legally binding. Consent decrees allow the federal government to:

…force police departments to enact policies that curb racial profiling, improper interrogation and illegal search and seizure, among other things. The exact terms and conditions vary in each case, and the deals are lifted only with the approval of a federal judge.

But, consent decrees are not limited to just those areas. They have the power to affect policy across the board.

Your Friendly Federal Police

Once in place, “DOJ consent decrees are not terminated until the agency achieves compliance with the terms of the agreement.” Compliance is overseen by a federal monitor, and the decree is kept in place by a federal judge. Typically, it takes several years for a judge to lift a consent decree. However, depending on what the monitor says, a decree can last indefinitely.

According to Attorney General Eric Holder:

Key to all consent decrees…is an emphasis on so-called “community policing,” a strategy that promotes partnerships between police departments and neighborhood groups to solve public safety problems.

It sounds good. But a direct result of a consent decree is that actual control of departmental policy is taken away from local departments and placed directly in the federal government’s hands. That control is maintained by a federal monitor and remains in effect until a federal judge says otherwise.  The community can speak, but the real power is in federal hands.

And, the number of departments under federal oversight is growing at an ever increasing rate:

In the last five years, the Justice Department has entered into consent decrees with nine local police departments, along with six out-of-court agreements. The 22 investigations it opened in the last five years are more than double the number it opened in the five years prior.

That’s a lot of departments under federal monitoring. The latest department to be added to the list was Cleveland. However, the number of departments affected may be understated due to the fact that:

…many police departments facing the potential of a Justice Department investigation preemptively adopt community policing reforms. New York City – which this week saw its own widespread protests in response to a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white officer in the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man – is one such department.

Federal Policy Controls

As the number of departments under federal oversight increases, so does the scope of their policies.

Recent consent decrees require departments to have policies and training to prevent biased policing.” These policies are designed to eliminate racial or ethnic bias in policing. However, they are increasingly mandating policies for issues that are less clear, like cross gender searches. For instance, the New Orleans consent decree states that:

Where same-gender searches are required by law or NOPD policy, the officer shall respect the gender identification expressed by the individual

That means that female officers would be required to search male suspects who identified as women.

That might be fine for pat downs, but what happens when a strip search or a body cavity search is required? One federal appeals court has ruled that cross sex strip searches are unconstitutional. What happens when federal policy conflicts with federal law?

Then there are the use of force guidelines.

Some Seattle officers are so opposed to use of force policies mandated by consent decree that they’ve taken the DOJ to court:

A civil rights lawsuit brought by more than 100 Seattle Police Department officers this week charges that new “use of force” regulations brought under a federal consent decree “unreasonably restrict and burden” the officers’ ability to protect themselves.

But unreasonable restrictions and burdens are exactly what to expect whenever the federal government steps in and dictates how to manage things. Just look at how the DOJ handles investigations. You could improve on their approach by simply by reversing what they do:

  • Instead of suing the local government, sue the officers who committed the crimes
  • Instead of filing civil suits, file criminal actions
  • Instead of charging taxpayers for police misconduct, make the department and individual officers pay

And yet, people continue to call for federal intervention.

Do they really want government overseers to go with all those government tanks?

I understand that some people have lost faith in their local systems. But asking the feds to step in shows that they’ve also lost faith in themselves. If people want the police to be held accountable, they should take over local government and hold them accountable directly.

4 Responses

  1. Clarence Chambley

    Don’t you people understand Obama plays both sides he’s trying to start a race war between the blacks and the whites and at the same time he is also a Muslim is trying to become a dictator if we start a race war between the blacks and whites he can declare martial law under martial law he can stay president then he allows the Muslims to move in and take over and then we both lose when are both sides wake up black people we as a nation have to stand together as one to fight this evil person out of America if you people believe in the Bible he is the Antichrist we can change history but we have to get him out of office

    Reply
  2. Desiree Torres

    I think all this is sad but you are very insightful I agree that people need to stand up.I really like the way you stood up n spoke.I think we need more people to put out what you did.God bless n God help us.people please stand up.

    Reply
  3. Jesse

    This is all crap. The Eric Garner video didn’t show anything but a take down, There was much more that you couldn’t see. I see the no indictment. Don’t like footing the bill, then keep racist radicals like Holder, Sharpton & Obama out of it. Those guys just create crap and stir anarchy. They all should be fired and have charges of inciting riots, MURDER, and racketeering brought against them for starters. They have tried to destroy this nation and violated the civil rights of one minority : policeman. They qualify more as a minority group than gays, and are violated more.

    Reply

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