Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Bad Texas cops get pass in federal court

If you paid attention to the case of UTPD Officer Wayne Coffey, you won't be surprised to learn a new study found that the U.S. Justice Department rarely prosecutes bad cops. Texas, specifically the Southern District based in Houston, gets the highest number of complaints filed alleging police abuse or civil rights violations, but U.S. Attorneys in Texas have among the lowest prosecution rates.

That tracks with my experience. Usually the Justice Department just sends in "mediators" from the Community Relations Service to try to talk you to death. But to call prosecutions rare would understate the case considerably. Here's how the
Houston Chronicle told the tale:

"Federal prosecutors nationwide decline to prosecute about 98 percent of the cases against police officers, prison guards and other government officials, according to U.S. Justice Department records analyzed in a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

"TRAC, an independent, nonprofit research institute at Syracuse University, files hundreds of Freedom of Information requests a year and provides federal data to news organizations in an online database.

"The federal Southern District of Texas, dominated by Houston, gets the nation's largest number of FBI investigations of police abuse and other civil rights complaints, and has one of the lowest prosecution rates, according to the report.

"The U.S. Attorney's Office declines to take action on 99.3 percent of the cases in the Houston region, the study found, and four Texas districts were ranked among the five districts nationwide with the largest number of cases received from the FBI from 1986 to 2003.

"Factors including failure by the FBI to investigate each case fully account for the results, David Burnham, co-author of the report, said Tuesday.

"Prosecutors considered 43,331 complaints and prosecuted 690 in the 17-year period, according to the records. Almost two-thirds of the officers prosecuted were convicted.

"'The data raises the question of whether we have appropriate accountability,' Burnham said."

Well, sort of. Actually it raises the question, and then dashes it against the rocks. Federal prosecutors just aren't going after bad cops.
Neither are local District Attorneys. And even when they do, the Chronicle rightly points out, the public remains pre-disposed to believe an officer, even one with a record of misconduct, over a plaintiff:

"Justice Department officials have said that civil rights cases against law enforcement officers are difficult to prosecute because of problems with the interpretation and perception of the law against civil rights abuses carried out "under the color of law."

"The most common cases in involve drug and immigration charges against civilians, the study showed. But "the victims of most official misconduct cases tend to be unsympathetic while the defendants often are well-respected members of the community," the Justice Department's civil rights division told Congress a few years ago.

"As a result, virtually all of these cases require extensive and time-consuming investigative efforts on the part of both the lawyers and the investigators," the government said.

"The political reality here is that people feel reluctant dealing with (criminal charges) against cops," Burnham said.

That's basically what happened in Jonathon Bougie's case -- a jury decided to give a ruthless cop broad leeway, even license to commit cruel, senseless acts, as long as the victim wasn't injured too badly. If this were a suit for medical damages, that might be justified, but is it okay if Bougie's civil rights were only violated a little bit?

It's a disturbing question. Clearly, according to the U.S. Justice Department, more than 98% of the time the answer is "yes."

Thanks to Randy for the clip.

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