The Department of Justice and police violence against African Americans
In the last week, we have seen, in horrific detail, the murders of two black men at the hands of police. The murders of five police officers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas only compounded the tragedy.
The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile serve as a stark reminder of the ways white supremacy and systemic racism stack the deck of the criminal justice system against Black people. Police officers take black lives. Mainstream media smears the victim. Prosecutors tip the scales in favor of police offenders. Killers face no consequences.
Eliminating the daily threat to Black lives posed by law enforcement will require systemic change, and demands action from all of us. We will each have to commit to doing our part, but there is also more that our leaders, especially the Attorney General, can, and must do. The Department of Justice (DOJ) must step in to ensure the full investigation and prosecution of the police officers who killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and any law enforcement officials who brutalize or kill Black people.
Tell Attorney General Loretta Lynch: Help lead the fight to stop police violence against Black people using the Justice Department’s full authority and resources.
The DOJ has the authority to investigate excessive force or other actions by law enforcement officials to determine if they are civil rights violations, either against an individual or as a “pattern or practice” against a community.1,2. The FBI and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division will be leading an independent investigation into Alton Sterling’s murder and Minnesota Gov. Mark Drayton has called for their intervention in Philando Castile's case.
These investigations are vital because local police and prosecutors, intent on protecting police and their own political careers, may conduct sham investigations, or actively engage in cover-ups to bury key evidence.3 These investigations can also reveal systemic problems within local police departments or prosecutors offices.
Given the DOJ’s authority, Attorney General Lynch must take action to ensure the constitutional rights of Black people are protected, whether from police violence, or the prosecutorial misconduct that lets police officers go free. Rather than wait to see if local officials will do the right thing, Attorney General Lynch should immediately deploy the resources of the FBI and the DOJ’s Civil Rights division to conduct a full investigation any time a Black person is brutalized or killed by police, just as she doing in the Sterling case. We’re joining with our friends at ColorOfChange to demand the DOJ go even farther, and bring charges against the officers who killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Tell Attorney General Loretta Lynch: Local law enforcement can’t be trusted. It’s up to the Justice Department to hold police officers and prosecutors accountable for failing to protect and stand up for Black lives.
DOJ investigations can result in charges being brought against individual officers or in consent decrees with offending police departments. Even when the DOJ does not find grounds to bring civil rights charges against officers or departments, their investigations can shine important light on the racism and misconduct endemic in police departments and prosecutors’ offices, allowing local leaders to organize and demand change.4
Police violence and prosecutorial misconduct perpetuate a racist criminal justice system where Black people are constantly in danger and where those in power are able to justify and excuse their actions — avoiding consequences and blocking systemic change. Attorney General Lynch has taken many steps to help break this pattern, including advocating for national collection of use-of-force data and conducting investigations in places like Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago.5,6
It’s time for the Justice Department to take even more leadership by committing to use the full weight of its authority and resources to ensure the full investigation and prosecution of any law enforcement officials who are failing to protect and stand up for Black lives.
Thanks for standing up for Black lives today.
- Michele Jawondo and Chelsea Parsons, “4 Ideas That Could Begin to Reform the Criminal Justice System and Improve Police-Community Relations," Center for American Progress, 12/18/2014.
- How to File a Complaint, Civil Rights Division, United States Department of Justice.
- Alan Pike, “An Officer Has Been Charged With The Murder Of Laquan McDonald. But What About The Cover-Up?," Think Progress, 11/25/2015.
- Conor Friedersdorf, “Ferguson’s Conspiracy against Black Citizens,” The Atlantic, 3/5/2015.
- Department of Justice press release, Attorney General Lynch:Use-of-Force Data is Vital for Transparency and Accountability, 10/5/2015.
- Mary Wisniewski, “U.S. DOJ to examine Chicago Police Department's use of force,” Reuters, 12/8/2015.