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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Reforming the Ferguson Police Department

This Slate piece discusses the potential use of 42 U.S.C. § 14141 against the Ferguson Police Department in the wake of recent events. That section authorizes DOJ to investigate and bring civil litigation against a "pattern or practice" by law enforcement organizations that violates the Constitution; DOJ can seek an injunction or consent decree or, more likely, enter into a Memorandum of Agreement about reforms to be made by the agency. 

Section 14141 was seen as a big step when it was enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1993, a way to make-up for the perceived under-use of criminal civil rights prosecutions under § 242. Actual practice has been disappointing to many commentators, as Rachel Harmon (U VA) and Kami Chavis Simmons (Wake Forest) have discussed. In particular, they note that the focus of investigations has been on smaller cities, such as Pittsburgh, rather than large cities such as New York and Chicago (although the Slate article discusses an agreement--not sure if it was a consent decree or MOA--with Los Angeles that has been found effective). Certainly, this is the type of high-profile situation that would overcome federal inertia and prompt a response.

One problem is whether there can be a finding of a "pattern or practice" in Ferguson. Certainly the past week has demonstrated some potential misconduct and abuse of power by individual officers. And the department as a whole has handled the entire fallout badly (for example, of 78 people arrested last night, 75 were for failing to disperse when ordered, which brings us back to the problem of how police do (and are allowed) to respond to lawful assembly and protest whenever they also can point to the slightest risk of violence). And the militarized response certainly reflects department policies and practices, although typical of what many police departments are now doing. But there is a nice question whether awful response in a single situation, even one as high-profile as this, is sufficient to warrant federal intervention or whether it necessarily indicates broader problems.

The best hope may be that DOJ goes to Ferguson in a cooperative stance, looking not to pursue litigation, but to convince the department to accept an MOA, particularly in light of the awful optics of the past week. When my current dean headed the Civil Rights Division, he favored this approach, believing it created buy-in from the local government without an adversarial posture or the need to establish pattern or practice.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 19, 2014 at 04:15 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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