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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Long Road to Justice: The Civil Rights Division at 50

Policing the Police and Prosecuting the Klan

You may have heard a radio news report which aired briefly during the days after the jury's acquittal of the policemen in the Rodney King beating case. The report stated that public officials of the judicial system of Los Angeles routinely used the acronym N.H.I. to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males...N.H.I. means "no humans involved." By classifying this category as N.H.I. these public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with its members in any way they pleased.

- Sylvia Wynter 51

The beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department on March 3, 1991, captured on videotape and broadcast around the world, shocked America. The tape all but confirmed the officers' use of excessive force and exposed to the public longstanding racial tensions in Los Angeles, with which its residents were all too familiar. The state prosecution of the four officers involved resulted in a complete acquittal. Within hours, riots broke out across Los Angeles that left 55 people dead and over 2000 wounded. In light of what appeared to many to be a wholesale miscarriage of justice, the Civil Rights Division opened a new investigation and initiated a federal prosecution. On August 4, 1992, the same four officers were indicted on two counts of intentionally violating Mr. King's constitutional rights by the use of excessive force.

In the federal trial, there was a racially mixed jury, expert medical testimony regarding King's injuries, and a dismissal of the defense's use-of-force "expert." By prosecuting this case, the Civil Rights Division expressed a commitment to racial justice not shown in the state system. The two-month federal trial of the four Los Angeles police officers ultimately ended with the conviction in April 1993 of two of the four officers, Sgt. Stacey Koon, the supervising officer at the scene, and Officer Laurence Powell, the officer who had delivered the most number of blows to Mr. King. Both defendants were sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Fifty years ago, many people living under Jim Crow could not envision a legal system in which equal protection under the law would extend to all Americans. From the Civil War until the 1950s, lynching was accepted as a method of imposing law and order in the South and maintaining a social caste system. An anti-lynching campaign was gradually legitimized and supported by the NAACP through legal challenges, but the law continued to criminalize Black behavior. 52

The Jim Crow system of de jure segregation in the South not only relegated Blacks to second-class citizens for whom voting, education, and housing rights were restricted; it also denied Blacks adequate government protection from the racial violence employed to maintain this caste system as the status quo. Black codes, racist statutes, and government unwillingness to protect Blacks from impending racial violence allowed members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to carry out a racist regime of public violence with impunity. Since local officials were not interested in prosecuting white-on-black violence, police officers could also avoid culpability for abusing the civil rights of Black residents.

The brutal murder of Emmett Till in the summer of 1955 exemplifies the extent to which southern extremists were able to preserve Jim Crow under the guise of law and order. During the initial period following the Brown v. Board decision in 1954, the South witnessed tactics of massive resistance that resulted in pockets of highly publicized racial violence. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who traveled from Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi, was viciously murdered and disposed of in the Tallahatchie River for whistling at a White woman. Although the crime was prosecuted by state authorities, the defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury after deliberating for just over one hour. Immediately following the acquittal, the defendants publicly and shamelessly admitted their guilt. 53 These and other murders persisted unabated.

In the early years of the Civil Rights Division, criminal cases were limited in number and had limited effect. While the Division had the statutory authority to prosecute police brutality, the legal systems in the South were not prepared to cooperate. From January 1958 to July 1960, the Division brought 52 prosecutions, but only obtained convictions in four cases and nolo contendere pleas in two others. As former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Burke Marshall recalled, "the problem of police misconduct was totally beyond reach" because of little resources, no local cooperation, and total exclusion of minorities from grand juries and trial juries. 54 Consequently, the Division brought few prosecutions for police violence against civil rights volunteers during voter registration drives, sit-ins, and protests. 55

Widespread publicity of the Freedom Summer bus rides in 1964, however, garnered national attention for the issue of racial violence in the South. On June 21, 1964, the brutal KKK murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner - placed the issue of Klan violence, in particular, on the public radar. National outrage over these murders prompted President Johnson to order the FBI to find the perpetrators, and sparked a federal government commitment to respond to Klan violence. 56

In December 1965, the Division obtained its first successful prosecution of a Klansman. It was the case of Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a White civil rights volunteer and mother of five, who was murdered by four KKK members after the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. One of the Klansmen in the car with the shooters was an FBI informant, so the killers were arrested the next day. Because the KKK wielded considerable power, the state's prosecution of this case resulted first in a mistrial and then in an acquittal in the second state trial. The Civil Rights Division interceded to bring the case to federal court in Montgomery, Alabama, where it achieved its first ever conviction in a civil rights death case.

In 1967, the Civil Rights Division was able to prosecute and convict some of the Neshoba and Lauderdale County deputy sheriffs who were responsible for the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. In 1968, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Pollak instructed Division attorneys to intervene more forcefully in police brutality allegations. Also In 1968, Congress broadened the scope of protection afforded by civil rights statutes by making it a crime to interfere by force or threat of force with certain federal rights (such as employment, housing, use of public facilities, etc.) because of someone's race, religion, color or national origin. This is commonly known as the federal hate crimes statute. 57 The impetus for the passage of the federal hate crime law was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968.

Today, the Civil Rights Division's criminal prosecutions of police brutality cases remain an important tool to redress wrongful criminal conduct of law enforcement officers. After the Simi Valley, California, jury acquitted the officers who beat Rodney King in a 1992 state trial, the Division confirmed the importance of policing the police by prosecuting and convicting the officers in federal court under the federal statute. The Division's work to prosecute hate crimes has expanded over the years to include an increased number of successful prosecutions of Klansmen in the South and White supremacists across the nation who have engaged in racially motivated violence.

Nevertheless, while criminal prosecutions address individual police misconduct, they fail to hold police departments accountable for perpetrating rather than protecting against widespread civil rights violations. Efforts to create federal accountability for patterns or practices of violations of civil rights within state and local police departments were met with resistance for decades. In the late 1970s, a court determined that the Division did not have the authority to bring a civil lawsuit against the Philadelphia Police Department alleging systematic abuse despite widespread evidence of routine brutality, illegal actions, and racist behavior. 58 In 1994, however, in response to the Rodney King incident and subsequent L.A. riots, Congress authorized the Attorney General to bring civil actions against state and local law enforcement agencies for a "pattern or practice" of police misconduct. 59

In January 1997, the Division brought its first enforcement action under its civil pattern or practice authority against the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, police department. The Division's investigation found a pattern or practice of officers using excessive force, falsely arresting, and improperly stopping, searching and seizing individuals and evidence of racially discriminatory action. As a result, the Division entered into a consent decree with the police department that spelled out a series of reforms to address its systemic problems. Similar cases were brought against police departments in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Prince Georges County, Maryland, and Cincinnati, Ohio, as well as against the New Jersey State Police. However, the Division has not entered into a single consent decree or settlement for alleged violations of the civil police misconduct statute since January 2004.

The Division's anemic enforcement of police pattern or practice cases in recent years has weakened the Department's overall effort to protect civil rights and to help police departments identify practices that undermine their law enforcement work. Without the Justice Department opening new investigations, there is little impetus for police departments to police themselves.


51. Wynter, S. "No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues." Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 1994: 42.

52. Davis, A. Y. Are Prisons Obsolete?, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003, 23.

53. Lawson, S.F., and Payne, C. Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1968. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998,12.

54. Vera Institute of Justice, "Prosecuting Police Misconduct: Reflections on the Role of the U.S. Civil Rights Division." (pdf) Vera Institute of Justice, 1998.

55. See, Stewart, J. "NAACP v. The Attorney General: Black Community Struggle Against Police Violence." The Social Justice Law Review, Vol. 29, 2006.

56. Lawson and Payne, supra note 54, at30-31.

57. 18 U.S.C. 245.

58. United States v. Citv of Philadelphia, 482 F. Supp. 1248 (E.D. Pa. 1979).

59. Passed as part of the 1994 Crime Act, the provision is 42 U.S.C. 14141. The types of conduct investigated include excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests, coercive sexual conduct, and unlawful stops, searches or arrests.

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