U.S. slow to probe complaints of police brutality

April 22, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- It seemed like just the sort of police misconduct case that the Justice Department would want to sink its teeth into.

A young black man had been shot to death by a police detective on Long Island, N.Y. Witnesses testified that the man, Ricky McCargo, had been unarmed, kneeling on the groundand pleading for his life. When a local grand jury failed to return an indictment against the detective, a state investigation concluded that the prosecutor had "skewed" the evidence in favor of the police. Meanwhile, the evidence was weighty enough to produce a $2.5 million civil award for the victim's family.

But the Justice Department's civil rights division never looked into the matter. In fact, in the seven yearsthat have passed since the shooting, the department has never responded either yes or no to repeated requests to investigate the incident for a possible civil rights violation, according to Jeffrey Bloom, the attorney for the victim's family.

"I wrote the Justice Department twice, three times. I asked the U.S. attorney to pick up the file," Mr. Bloom said. "They did nothing. They've done nothing at any step.They've never even responded to our letters or answered our phone calls."

Other such cases have been similarly ignored by federal authorities over the past several years, say attorneys and public officials around the country. And even though the Justice Department announced plans last month to review six years' worth of police brutality files in response to the uproar over the videotaped beating of a man by Los Angeles police, the department's record up to now has been notable mostly for indifference and inaction, according to critics.

"I don't see the Justice Department as having any interest whatsoever in investigating or attempting to resolve this problem," said Fred Joseph, a Prince George's County attorney who regularly handles police brutality cases. "The attitude of government -- from local to federal -- is to get rid of the complaint or sweep it under the rug."

The Justice Department's role in such cases is important, attorneys say, because it is often difficult to get objective cooperation from local prosecutors who work closely with the same police officers they would have to investigate; a classic case of "the fox guarding the chicken coop," Mr. Bloom said.

Joseph M. Gump, an assistant public defender in Chicago, said, "It's impossible to get any kind of redress locally. It's a situation where you are giving the semblance of due process without any of the substance. . . . [The Justice Department] is really the only option you have."

Because of this, said Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, "there has to be a stronger federal role."

Critics back their arguments with the Justice Department's own statistics (virtually the only rough gauge of nationwide police brutality), which show that during the last 10 years roughly 79,000 complaints of police misconduct have resulted in only 537 grand jury investigations -- about 54 per year -- which have in turn yielded 300 trial convictions and 381 guilty pleas.

"It's disappointing," Representative Don Edwards, D-Calif., said. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, which he heads, will hold hearings on police brutality this week.

Most of those complaints to the Justice Department during the last 10 years -- about 65 percent -- were never investigated at all. John R. Dunne, the assistant attorney general who heads the civil rights division, which presides over such cases, said that most police misconduct complaints don't fit the definition of a civil rights violation.

"For example," he said, someone might complain that "when the cop stopped me for speeding, he wasrude." That sort of misconduct, he said, "is not a subject of a potential civil rights violation."

But the behavior alleged in the McCargo case on Long Island offered clear grounds for a civil rights case, Mr. Bloom said.

Mr. Dunne said he didn't know why Mr. Bloom's request for an investigation was ignored.

Other such cases have gotten similar results.

Terry R. Bankert, who fields about 70 police brutality complaints each year as ombudsman for the city of Flint, Mich., said he began trying to get the Justice Department's attention two years ago, hoping to refer a case for investigation.

"I made an appointment and went down and talked to the guy, the liaison person with the U.S. attorney's office," Mr. Bankert said. "I showed him my credentials and the case file."

And? "I never heard back from him, not even a 'No.' "

So Mr. Bankert followed up, and eventually, "I was told I'd taken it to the wrong guy." He tried again, still with no results. Finally, about seven months ago, after more than a year of frustration, he took the complaint directly to Mr. Dunne in Washington. The case is now under investigation by federal authorities.

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