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Targeting the Police

The Holder Justice Department declares open season on big city police departments

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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In 2000, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration slapped the Los Angeles Police Department with federal oversight. A 1994 law gives the Justice Department the authority to seek control of police agencies that have engaged in a “pattern or practice” of constitutional violations. Justice’s attorneys never uncovered any systemic constitutional abuses in the LAPD as required by the 1994 law, despite having commandeered hundreds of thousands of documents (and having lost 10 boxes of sensitive records). Nevertheless, for the next decade the LAPD would operate under a draconian federal “consent decree”—a nominally consensual agreement overseen by a court—governing nearly every aspect of its operations, at a cost of over $100 million in contracting fees and in manpower diverted to mindless paper-pushing. 

Targeting the Police

Get ready for hours of paperwork: an anti-gang sweep in L.A. County.


The deputy attorney general who forced federal control on the LAPD in 2000 was none other than Eric Holder, who now presides over a Justice Department determined to make the Los Angeles consent decree the model for its future oversight of police departments. The current assistant attorney general for civil rights, Thomas Perez, told a conference of police chiefs in June 2010 that the Justice Department would be pursuing “pattern or practice” takeovers of police departments much more aggressively than the Bush administration, eschewing negotiation in favor of hardball tactics seeking immediate federal control. Perez has hired nine additional attorneys to beef up his division’s search for alleged police agency racism and to sue agencies that don’t capitulate to federal demands. 

To see what lies ahead for the nation’s police, one need look no further than the Los Angeles Police Department’s past and present travails with the Justice Department. 

The LAPD consent decree was a power grab from day one. The first thing DOJ demanded as part of its new authority over the LAPD was the collection of racial information on every stop the L.A. officers make—even though the corruption scandal which provided the pretext for the consent decree had nothing to do with race or alleged “racial profiling.” 

The 180-clause decree mired the LAPD’s operations in red tape, apparently on the theory that if cops are left to actually fight crime, rather than writing and reviewing reports, they will run amok violating people’s rights. Today, an L.A. officer can hardly nod at a civilian without filling out numerous forms documenting his salutation for later review. If he returns fire at a gangbanger, his use of force will be more intensely investigated for wrong-doing than the criminal shooting that provoked the officer’s defensive reaction in the first place. 

The LAPD spent approximately $40 million trying to comply with the decree in its first year and close to $50 million annually for several years thereafter. It pulled 350 officers off the street to meet the decree’s mountainous paperwork requirements. Nevertheless, it struggled to meet the fanatical standards for compliance imposed by the federal monitor overseeing the decree, who demanded that virtually 100 percent of the arbitrary deadlines for filing reports be met on time, regardless of whether the supervisors who missed their deadline by a few days were otherwise occupied with a triple homicide investigation. In 2006, the federal court to which the monitor reported deemed the department out of compliance with the decree and extended its term. In 2009, the court ended federal control on many of the decree’s provisions, yet continued federal oversight on issues relating to “biased policing,” among other matters, until January 2011. And now the Justice Department, facing the potential final expiration of the consent decree this month, has made its most preposterous charge against the LAPD yet, in a desperate last-minute bid to retain its power over the force.

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