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Police Shootings: Will The Justice Department Step In?

ARUN RATH, HOST:

There have been protests across the country - not just in New York - over a number of cases where police have killed unarmed people. Many of those protesting are calling on the U.S. Justice Department to do something, and civil rights investigators there have been unusually busy. With us to talk about the effort is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, right from the beginning of his tenure, Attorney General Eric Holder worked to revitalize the civil rights division. Now that so many are calling for him to weigh in on these cases, what can the DOJ do?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The civil rights unit, which was very controversial during the Bush administration, very specifically, under President Obama, has decided to become aggressive again. Eric Holder, the Attorney General, and Tom Perez, who led the civil rights division and is now the Labor Secretary, said they wanted to put the civil rights unit back in business. And they started doing that by mounting major investigations into police forces.

They have done more than 20 of those investigations so far, Arun. That's a record in any administration. And then, even earlier this week, Attorney General Holder announced a plan to reach an agreement in Cleveland over excessive use of force in that city that violates the fourth amendment. The allegations and the findings by the Justice Department are that Cleveland police shoot too many people. They hit too many people. They use tasers too often - all against people who are unarmed or pose little or no threat to public safety.

RATH: Still, we're talking about civil investigations into the culture of Police Departments. Aren't those notoriously difficult organizations to change?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. And it's worth noting that the Justice Department, during the Bush years, reached an agreement with Cleveland to overhaul the force there. But, clearly, since the Obama Justice Department had to come in again this week, not enough has changed there. Current justice officials are telling me, as a result of some of that backsliding - not just in Cleveland but elsewhere - they're now demanding, as part of any settlement agreements they do with state and local police, that judges will have oversight and independent monitors will come in and look at how the police are behaving - asked to look at paperwork and interview people. In previous eras, civil rights lawyers might have just written down changes in a letter. Now, the Justice Department wants to be able to wield a hammer, so to speak.

RATH: What about bringing federal criminal charges against individual police officers who may have violated the law? I remember 20 years ago now, a couple of the officers who were initially acquitted in the Rodney King beating were later convicted by the DOJ.

JOHNSON: Civil rights veterans tell me there's a very, very high bar to bringing federal charges against an individual police officer. That's because most crime is local and that local grand juries have a much broader range of options for charging law enforcement than does the federal government. The federal government has just one way in, Arun. And that's to bring federal criminal civil rights charges that would require authorities to prove the officer specifically intended to violate somebody's civil or constitutional rights. And they'd have to be able to prove that that officer acted with a specific state of mind.

The problem there is that the Supreme Court and many lower courts have given cops all kinds of legal protections - a legal shield that if anybody in a reasonable position would have believed a cop was under threat or saw some kind of threat to public safety - that often is a successful defense for law enforcement. And I'm hearing from law enforcement sources now, Arun. They do not expect Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson this year, to face any federal criminal charges. That investigation's still ongoing, though. And, of course, there's also an ongoing investigation by the feds into the New York police officer who pressed down on Eric Garner's neck in Staten Island, killing him earlier this year.

RATH: Carrie, one of the issues at the heart of the furor around these killings is racial profiling. Communities of color are adamant the administration address that. Is that likely to happen?

JOHNSON: The Justice Department's long been considering some new guidelines for federal agents that would prohibit racial profiling. Those guidelines are due out in the next several days, and they'll add some new banned categories, like sexual orientation and religion. But Democrats in the Senate and advocacy groups say they still don't go far enough. They won't apply to agents at airports or on the border, and there's still some big loopholes that would allow the FBI to map Muslim-American communities in the U.S. And most importantly, Arun, they won't generally cover state and local police, who are the heart of these incidents in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland.

RATH: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.