The moment black rioters began looting and smashing store windows following the shooting death of a young black man by a white Cincinnati cop, black leaders quickly demanded a federal investigation. This is their standard demand every time cops kill a black person -- and with good reason. City and police officials and local prosecutors are loath to go after cops who gun down unarmed blacks.
The shooting has outraged residents of Cincinnati, where sporadic but violent protests have led to the arrest of close to 250 people since Monday. The mayor of Cincinnati announced a state of emergency Thursday and issued an 8 p.m. curfew.
Cincinnati is a textbook example of the legal blind eye locals have turned toward police violence. Since 1995, Cincinnati cops have gunned down 15 black males. During the same period, not a single white was killed by police. The latest black victim, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, was unarmed. His big crime was that he failed to appear in court on misdemeanor charges.
The officer who gunned him down last Saturday claimed that he feared for his life and opened fire on Thomas when he tried to flee. Other cops have said that officer Steven Roach, who has not commented publicly on the shooting, believed Thomas was trying to pull a gun on him. The prosecutor says that he will present the case to a grand jury, but black leaders don't expect much to come of this. That's why they want the feds to intervene. But they won't get much from them, either.
Despite the wave of highly dubious police shootings of mostly young blacks and Latinos during the past few years, the Justice Department has done almost nothing to nail murderous cops. According to a 1999 report on police misconduct by Human Rights Watch, an international public watchdog group, in 1998 federal prosecutors brought excessive-force charges against police officers in less than 1 percent of the cases investigated by the FBI that involved allegations of police abuse.
The group also found that there was almost no increase in the skimpy number of police misconduct cases prosecuted by the Justice Department during the Clinton years. With ultraconservative John Ashcroft calling the shots at the Justice Department, there's little hope that this will change anytime soon. The see-no-evil policy of the feds toward police violence comes at a time when the number of police-abuse complaints has soared nationally. The Justice Department gets about 15,000 complaints yearly. To better assist law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors in tracking patterns of abuse, the Violent Crime and Control Act of 1994 authorized the department to collect data on the frequency and types of police-abuse complaints.
By the end of 1999, the Justice Department had yet to release a single report on the level of police misconduct in America. Worse, the department has long had on its books a strong arsenal of civil rights statutes to prosecute abusive police officers. Yet more often than not it has taken major press attention, large-scale protests and even major riots -- like those that occurred in Los Angeles in 1992 following the Rodney King verdict -- before the department actually used its legal weapons.
It was only because of the intense media focus on the police killings of Tyisha Miller in Riverside, Calif., in 1999 and Amadou Diallo in New York last year, and the threat of mass street demonstrations against police abuse, that President Clinton spoke out against police violence in his administration's waning days.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors say they can't nail more killer cops because they are hamstrung by the lack of funds and staff, victims who are perceived as criminals, the dearth of credible witnesses and the public's inclination to always believe police testimony. They also claim they are pinned in by the almost impossible requirement that they prove an officer had the specific intent to kill or injure a victim in order to get a conviction. These are tough obstacles to overcome. Nor does it help that the Justice Department is in the business of taking on mostly cases it knows it can win. Many prosecutors are more than happy to take a hands-off attitude toward police misconduct cases.
This is no excuse for federal prosecutors not to at least make the effort to prosecute more officers when there is substantial evidence that excessive force was used. This is the legally and morally correct thing to do. And it sends a powerful message to law enforcement agencies that the federal government will go after lawbreakers, whether they wear a mask or a badge.
Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark understood the importance of prosecuting violence-prone cops, even when there is virtually no chance of getting a conviction against them. He felt it acted as a "stabilizing force" to spur police and city officials to take stronger action to halt the use of excessive force in their departments. Clark was right. Yet while President Bush has paid lip service to stopping the recent trend toward racial profiling, he has been mute about the need for more aggressive federal prosecutions to crack down on police violence.
The refusal by federal prosecutors to go after cops who overuse deadly force almost certainly will continue the dangerous cycle of more shootings and more racial turmoil, and deepen the distrust and cynicism of blacks and Latinos toward the criminal justice system.