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Justice Dept. Makes A Habit Of Turning Its Sights On Local Police

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The Justice Department says, it will investigate the police in Ferguson, Missouri, over allegations of biased law enforcement. This follows last month's riots in the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old. NPR's Martin Kaste reports that such investigations have become more frequent under the Obama administration.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: These investigations have become so common that protestors have learned to ask for them by name.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How are you all doing today?

(CHEERING)

KASTE: Take these activists presenting their demands outside St. Louis City Hall last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: An expended Department of Justice investigation into patterns of racial profilings and civil rights violations by the police across North St. Louis County.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Two...

KASTE: It now looks like they're getting their wish. But what they may not realize is that these investigations are relatively new. They date back to 1994, when Congress gave the Justice Department the power to sue police departments for patterns of civil rights violations. William Yeomans worked at Justice then. He traces that new authority back to the police beating of Rodney King and its aftermath.

WILLIAM YEOMANS: There was great interest in these issues and the aftermath of the Rodney King prosecution. And you recall that after that incident, there were riots in Los Angeles - enormous property destruction. I think 50 people lost their lives. So there was a real national interest for a while.

KASTE: Yeomans says the Obama administration has been very aggressive in using this authority. Still, there are more than 12,000 local police agencies in the country, so takes a high-profile incident to attract the Justice Department's attention. But once the feds have an agency in their sights, brace yourself.

YEOMANS: It's unlikely that the department will find that there's no problem whatsoever.

KASTE: Yeomans says for the police department that finds itself in this situation, the best thing to do is to work with the feds.

YEOMANS: Some of these investigations turn into a kind of cooperative arrangement between the Department of Justice and the police department, where the Department of Justice can provide technical assistance and advice to a police department that really wants to reform.

KASTE: Still, some agencies push back. Earlier this year, the county attorney in Missoula, Montana, Fred Van Valkenburg, vented his frustration over what he saw as Department of Justice bullying.

FRED VAN VALKENBURG: What they have done and continue to do is how they say, well, if you just agreed to what we want to do, we'll to it in a nice way. But if you don't agree to what we want, we'll be mean. We'll be rotten. We'll make this so painful, you'll wish you would have agreed.

KASTE: Locals also sometimes question the fixes that are required by the feds. After a DOJ investigation, Seattle agreed to some new rules for how police can use force. Now some officers are suing over those rules, saying, they may get cops killed. But ultimately, it often comes down to local pride. Columbus, Ohio, official Steve Campbell went through this when the DOJ came knocking there more than a decade ago.

STEVE CAMPBELL: You're basically accusing a whole community or at least their officers of acting improperly to their citizens. And that's a very serious, but very hard allegation. And some people - it's unusual become defensive about that.

KASTE: But Campbell says, local officials should listen to the complaints about their police because those complaints didn't start with the Justice Department. He says, They started in the community. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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