June 4, 2020
LANSING – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel today joined 17 other attorneys general in urging Congress to expand federal law to give state attorneys general clear statutory authority to investigate patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing.
In a letter issued to Congressional leadership, the coalition is asking Congress to expand the law enforcement misconduct section of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was enacted following the severe beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers in 1991. The coalition argues that attorneys general should have authority to investigate and resolve patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing, particularly in the event that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) fails to use its authority to act.
“All members of law enforcement have a responsibility to protect and serve, but for many individuals within the black community and other communities of color, the system continues to fail them,” said Nessel. “My colleagues and I refuse to turn a blind eye to police misconduct and we are calling on Congress to equip us with these additional tools so that we may dig deeper.”
In their letter, the attorneys general call on Congress to take urgent action as thousands of Americans march in cities throughout the country to protest police brutality and the systemic failures that cause and allow misconduct to perpetuate. The coalition is asking Congress to grant statutory authority to conduct “pattern-or-practice” investigations, to obtain data regarding excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, and to bring appropriate actions in federal court to ensure constitutional policing in states—in particular when the federal government is unwilling or unable to act.
According to the attorneys general, the DOJ initiated 69 pattern-or-practice investigations between 1994 and 2017, which resulted in 40 court-enforceable consent decrees. However since 2017, the DOJ has largely curtailed the ability of federal law enforcement to use court-enforced agreements to reform local police departments. Since January 2017, the DOJ has initiated zero pattern-or-practice investigations into police conduct and has not entered any consent decrees.
The attorneys general state that the DOJ’s refusal to address the pervasive problem of police misconduct has left communities without critical civil rights protections. As a remedy, the coalition is asking Congress to authorize state attorneys general, in addition to the DOJ, to investigate complaints of pattern-or-practice violations through the use of investigative subpoenas, which the DOJ has proposed in the past to help strengthen its oversight capacity.
In addition, the coalition is asking that attorneys general be granted authority to gather data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers. Such data would be essential when identifying law enforcement agencies that have above-average rates of excessive force complaints, which can also help identify at-risk law enforcement agencies before a devastating incident occurs. For example, the former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing 46-year-old George Floyd on May 25 had 18 prior complaints filed against him with the Minneapolis Police Department’s Internal Affairs.
According to a 2018 report issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, people of color comprise less than 38 percent of the nation’s population, yet they make up almost 63 percent of unarmed people killed by police. Additionally, unlawful use of force by police officers rarely leads to discipline, termination or criminal punishment. The advocacy group Mapping Police Violence found that 99 percent of police killings from 2014 to 2019 did not result in officers being charged with or convicted of a crime.
“These numbers are staggering and should make us all stand up, take action and foster concrete change across this nation,” Nessel added.
Nessel joins the attorneys general of California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Vermont in sending this letter.