Tags: Baltimore Riots | Justice Department | Baltimore | police | special litigations unit | small unit | unrest

50-Lawyer Unit Underpowered for Police Scandals in Baltimore, Elsewhere

By    |   Thursday, 07 May 2015 11:35 PM

High-profile incidents in which unarmed black suspects have died after confrontations with police have thrown a small unit of Justice Department lawyers into the national spotlight.

But Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's request for a Justice Department probe of the city's police department in the wake the police-custody death of Freddie Gray is putting even more pressure on the 50-lawyer Special Litigations Section, Politico reports.

For the past 20 years, the unit has offered an aggressive path for the federal government to force rogue law enforcement entities into line. But with the intensity ramped up over policing issues since last summer's death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the division is ill-equipped to handle the added numbers of investigations of scandal-wracked departments, Politico reports.

"The president really needs to address the resource issue," William Yeomans, a former assistant attorney general, who now teaches at American University Law School, tells Politico, noting the probe into the 53-officer Ferguson Police Department involved dozens of Justice Department officials.

Baltimore has roughly 3,000 officers, Politico notes.

According to Politico, the Obama administration has opened 21 investigations into police departments — from Los Angeles and New Orleans to Missoula, Montana, and Beacon, New York; the department's 2014 budget request said each investigation requires, on average, 1,900 hours of attorney time.

In the latest potential probe, Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a Senate panel Thursday the Justice Department is "in the process of considering" Rawlings-Blake’s request.

Lynch is facing increased pressure to open the investigation from Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who says the Maryland delegation intends to ask for the probe, too, Politico reports.

Experts tell Politico the Baltimore mayor's move could open a floodgate of similar requests.

"There are many police departments where there are patterns of abuses of citizens’ rights in violation of the Constitution," criminologist Samuel Walker tells Politico, suggesting President Barack Obama should try to expand the office’s size and powers.

"It would be very valuable for the Special Litigation Section to be expanded and for it to be granted subpoena power," Walker said.

But Bradley Schlozman, who ran the Civil Rights Division under George W. Bush, called the Baltimore mayor's move a "surrender" to the federal government.

"You can’t necessarily extrapolate a pattern or practice of misconduct from isolated incidents," he tells Politico, even if they result in protests.

"If you simply indulge a request without ensuring that the proper legal standards have been satisfied, then the department has been politicized," he says, suggesting police forces view the Department of Justice as a last resort.

Robert Driscoll, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the second Bush administration, agrees.

"They should make clear if they’re doing it that they’re doing it based on the facts and not because the mayor requested it," he tells Politico, adding "local police forces resent consent decrees."

Driscoll said the special litigation section can conduct targeted investigations of "several large places at once," as long as the investigations focus on specific practices and don’t pour through every aspect of a police force.

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High-profile incidents in which unarmed black suspects have died after confrontations with police have thrown a small unit of Justice Department lawyers into the national spotlight.
Justice Department, Baltimore, police, special litigations unit, small unit, unrest, nationwide
Thursday, 07 May 2015 11:35 PM
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