Wednesday, May 09, 2001

Feds trying to defuse distrust

Under Ashcroft, cooperation is part of review

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — With its investigation into police practices in Cincinnati, the Department of Justice hopes to change the tone of its relationship with city and police officials across the nation who are suspicious of federal intervention.

        The investigation in Cincinnati is the first initiated under new Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Justice Department officials took great care to stress the cooperative nature of their mission.

        On Monday, before the investigation was announced publicly, the department made sure to call the mayor, city manager, police chief, the Fraternal Order of Police, the black police officers' association and the NAACP.

   A list of cities and counties the U.S. Justice Department is investigating:
   • Cincinnati
   • Detroit
   • Buffalo
   • Charleston, W.Va.
   • Cleveland
   • East Pointe, Mich.
   • Los Angeles
   • New Orleans
   • New York City
   • Orange County, Fla.
   • Prince George's County, Md.
   • Riverside, Calif.
   • Washington, D.C.
   • Tulsa, Okla.
   The Justice Department has reached civil settlements with these cities and states:
   • Pittsburgh
   • Steubenville, Ohio
   • New Jersey State Police
   The Justice Department is in court against this city:
   • Columbus
        The Justice Department promised expert technical assistance to Cincinnati police during its investigation, and indicated that it would disclose its findings during the review so the city and police could choose whether to change police practices before the investigation is completed.

        “We are trying to create a new emphasis on cooperation,” said an official in the department's Civil Rights Division, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

        Lawyers from the department's civil-rights division will examine police training, supervision, disciplinary practices and citizen complaints over the past several years. Fifteen African-Americans have died in confrontations with Cincinnati police since 1995. Three were unarmed.

        The Cincinnati investigation is unique in that Mayor Charlie Luken asked the Justice Department to review police practices after the fatal police shooting of Timothy Thomas on April 7 led to protests and riots. But department attorneys used their decision to conduct a formal investigation in Cincinnati to explain how they would approach other civil rights reviews.

        “I think cooperation is a much better way to proceed rather than an adversarial way,” the official said.

        Since the 1994 crime bill became law, giving the Justice Department authority to pursue civil cases against police for patterns of abuse or discrimination, federal investigators have looked into allegations in about 20 cities and counties across the country.

        Three investigations — involving Pittsburgh, Steubenville, Ohio, and the New Jersey State Police — ended with settlement; a case in Columbus is in court. The Justice Department officially is investigating police in 14 cities and counties, and other probes are under way but not yet public.

        Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, which studies police issues and advises police leaders, said a move toward cooperation is positive. However, Justice Department civil rights investigations are legal proceedings with consequences.

        “I'm not sure how far they can go, given the legal mandate they have,” he said.

Responding to accusations
        Some officials in cities that went through a civil rights investigation under the Clinton administration said the process was often tense and secretive, as expected when people outside the community make accusations of police misconduct.

        S. Gary Repella, the law director in Steubenville, described negotiations with the Justice Department during the investigation as adversarial and at times frustrating. The Justice Department, he said, alleged a pattern of excessive force, false arrests and improper stops but did not provide the city with a specific list of cases it was exploring.

        “They played it pretty close to the vest,” Mr. Repella said. “They never really told us which cases they had to go against us if we refused to settle.”

        If the Justice Department had been more forthcoming about its findings during the investigation, he said, it might have led police to immediately implement better training or persuaded the officers targeted to change their behavior. “Those officers would have known they were on the hot seat and things might have gotten better,” he said.

        But he acknowledged that had he known the specific cases under review, and felt the city could have defended the police department's actions in court, the city may not have agreed to settle and exposed itself to greater legal costs and court penalties.

        Mr. Repella said the relationship with the Justice Department improved significantly after the settlement and the city has not had a police misconduct lawsuit since the agreement was reached four years ago.

        “At first,” he said, “we were saying that we're not that bad, and they were saying that maybe we were.”

        Race was an issue in Mr. Ashcroft's confirmation hearings before the Senate, and he has sought to soothe skepticism from liberals about his commitment to federal civil rights laws. Mr. Ashcroft has encouraged a thorough national review of the prevalence of racial profiling by police and was quick to investigate allegations that Cincinnati police fired pellet-filled beanbags into a crowd of reportedly peaceful protesters last month.

        Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, said the review in Cincinnati could be valuable if investigators conduct it in a way that is fair to all segments of the community.

        While the investigation will examine the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 15 African-American suspects at the hands of police since 1995, Mr. Chabot said that the safety risks to rank-and-file police officers should not be obscured. Three police officers have been killed in the line of duty over the past four years.

        “I hope they don't come in with their minds made up,” said Mr. Chabot, whose subcommittee has jurisdiction over the department's civil rights division.
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