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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Justice Department can't ignore bad policing

U.S. attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
U.S. attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Published Jan. 17, 2017

The Justice Department's thorough report detailing the Chicago Police Department's systemic disregard for civil rights is a sickening account of excessive force and abuse. It also is just one of the depressingly familiar federal investigations of police departments throughout the nation that have used discriminatory tactics. Yet President-elect Donald Trump's choice for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, has criticized such federal efforts as overreaching. Whether it's civil rights or voting rights, Washington cannot look the other way when there is nowhere else to turn for help.

The Chicago situation is breathtaking in its scope, brutality and cynicism. The Justice Department's report says police officers routinely use unnecessary force, from firing their guns at cars or during foot chases to using Tasers in nonthreatening situations. It describes officers taking gang members to the neighborhoods of their rivals in an attempt to force them to talk. And it recounts an instance when an officer pointed his gun and then handcuffed teens who were trespassing on their bikes. No wonder the police have difficulty getting cooperation from residents as the city's murder rate soars.

In such a dysfunctional situation, it's also understandable that the federal report describes a Chicago Police Department that is demoralized, lacks discipline and fails to follow its own policies. That is exactly why the Justice Department has to step in to protect the rights of citizens, independently spotlight the abuses and help change the system. Under the Obama administration, the department has investigated police department abuses and negotiated reforms in cities from Baltimore to Cleveland. It intends to do the same in Chicago, where the city appears incapable of repairing the situation itself or stemming the rampant gun violence in the poorest neighborhoods.

A Justice Department led by Sessions may not be so vigilant. During his Senate confirmation hearing last week, he expressed skepticism about the two dozen "pattern-or-practice" investigations the Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights Division opened during the Obama administration. Sessions was much more concerned that those investigations could hurt police morale and suggested the bad behavior could be from just a few rogue cops. That misses the point entirely and glosses over the systemic police misconduct in Chicago. And Baltimore. And Cleveland. And Seattle. And Ferguson.

Even when the Justice Department's intervention does not rise to that level, it can have a positive impact. In Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn invited Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to examine the Police Department's enforcement of bicycling laws. The department's comprehensive report confirmed the findings of a 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation: Black bicyclists were stopped at a far higher rate than white cyclists, and those who were stopped were more likely to be ticketed. It also found the practice did not improve bicycle safety, reduce bike thefts or lower crime in high-crime neighborhoods. The city has sharply reduced the number of bike tickets it issues.

Sessions is similarly disinterested in aggressively enforcing voting rights for all Americans. He praised a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that gutted a key portion of the Voting Rights Act that protected voters in Florida and applied particularly to counties with a history of discrimination, including Hillsborough. It was that provision that led the Justice Department in 1992 to force the creation of a state Senate majority-minority voting district spanning Tampa Bay. And it was the Voting Rights Act that the Justice Department relied upon to help county supervisors of election stop Gov. Rick Scott's purge of the voting rolls in 2012.

When police departments routinely violate civil rights or state officials ignore the voting rights of minority residents, Washington has to step in. If the new attorney general instructs the Justice Department to stand back, where else can citizens go for help?

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