Erik Eckholm, New York Times, June 18, 2014
As cries of “shots fired” shrieked from police radios, a caravan that grew to 62 patrol cars chased an old blue Malibu through 20 miles of this city’s streets and highways. The vehicle and its two occupants were surrounded in a school lot, and in a disorienting jumble of sirens and strobes, officers fired 137 rounds at close range.
When the shooting stopped that night in November 2012, a man and a woman, both African-American, were dead, riddled with bullets in the car’s front seat. There was no evidence that either had a gun. Investigations suggested that they had set out to purchase crack cocaine in a car that apparently backfired as it passed an officer, and then panicked when the police tried to pull them over.
Late last month, one officer was indicted on manslaughter charges and five supervisors were charged with criminal dereliction of duty.
The Department of Justice has also opened a wide-ranging civil rights investigation that could lead to years of court oversight and mandated controls on the use of force.
It is the latest in a series of sharp federal interventions in police departments across the country, part of an initiative that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. considers a signature achievement, forcing change and accountability on insular police departments.
“For me, it’s kind of personal,” Mr. Holder said in an interview. In his days as a prosecutor and a judge in Washington, D.C., he recalled, strong criminal cases had crumbled because jurors mistrusted the police.
“Sometimes people think a choice has to be made between lawful, respectful policing and effective policing,” Mr. Holder said. “I think they are mutually dependent.”
The federal investigations are often followed by agreements called consent decrees and years of court monitoring. Even cities that have not come under direct scrutiny have been encouraged to tighten rules for using Tasers and guns, to find better ways to deal with mentally ill suspects and to adopt new technology such as on-officer video cameras.
Some police departments and political leaders have pushed back. Last month, more than 100 officers in Seattle filed a suit to block a court-ordered plan there, saying it imposed unrealistic limits that put police and the public at risk. Some experts have criticized the interventions as overly intrusive and costly.
The federal program was authorized by Congress in 1994 in the shock waves that followed the beating of Rodney King and subsequent riots in Los Angeles. While early cases were begun in cities including Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, the Justice Department under President George W. Bush put an emphasis on technical assistance to departments rather than on court-ordered changes.
But the Obama administration opened investigations, often leading to court supervision, in about 20 cities. They include New Orleans, where court oversight aims to combat a history of police violence and corruption; Portland, Ore., where the focus is on responses to mentally ill offenders; and Albuquerque, where a string of questionable shootings has caused community outrage.
In many cases, mayors and police chiefs have said they welcome the outside help, which, among other things, can reduce lawsuits.
But in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu sought, without success, to get out of a court settlement, saying the city could not afford the projected $55 million required to reconfigure the police and pay a monitor.
The Los Angeles Police Department entered into a consent decree in 2001, after revelations that officers in one district were abusing suspects, tampering with evidence and committing perjury. Members of the force complained bitterly about the outside supervision, which continued for 13 years.
In Cleveland, the leader of the police union called the November 2012 episode a “perfect chase” that protected the public from an apparent danger, but chagrined city officials saw it as a serious breakdown in discipline: Apart from the fusillade of bullets, in which officers fired wildly toward each other across the target car, more than one-third of the city’s on-duty officers joined in the chase, many without permission. The department itself disciplined more than 70 officers and supervisors.
Among black residents, the episode created “a powder keg of anger and frustration,” said the Rev. Jawanza K. Colvin, pastor of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church.
“We all hear stories in the barber shops, the beauty shops, the basketball courts–stories of police harassment and violence,” Mr. Colvin said in an interview. “When you have an incident like Nov. 29, 2012, it brings all these concerns and anxieties to the fore.”