Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday June 4th, 2015, 9:51am

Justice Department's Civil Rights Chief Talks Race And Community Policing At U of C

With so much public attention being paid to policing issues across the country, Vanita Gupta, the head of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said there is currently an "unprecedented opportunity" to tackle "fundamental problems" as it relates to police and community relations as well as the criminal justice system.

Speaking Wednesday evening before an audience at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, Gupta also called the recent settlement reached in Cleveland over law enforcement practices a "model plan" that communities across the country could turn to for policing solutions.

The Justice Department and the city of Cleveland announced last Tuesday that they have entered into a consent decree to overhaul the Cleveland Division of Police after a federal investigation found that officers often used unreasonable and unnecessary force, among other problematic tactics.

"The Cleveland agreement, to me, really reflects the commitment by the city and the Division of Police to work with the Cleveland community to transform its police agency into a model of community-oriented policing," Gupta said. "The agreement also, to me, really demonstrates that people can come together across perceived differences to realize a common vision of a safer and more just city."

Among other reforms, the consent decree calls for the Cleveland Division of Police to use de-escalation techniques, rather than force, whenever possible and appropriate as well as the creation of a Community Police Commission comprised of 10 civilian members and one representative from each of the city's three police unions.

The federal probe that led to the consent decree in Cleveland is one among 22 investigations Gupta said the Justice Department has launched into police departments across the country since the start of the Obama administration. 

Another notable Justice Department investigation was of the law enforcement practices in Ferguson, Missouri after the police shooting death of Michael Brown last August. Brown's death and other high-profile police killings of unarmed African Americans, more recently Freddie Gray in Baltimore, have sparked a national conversation about policing and racial issues.

In March, the Justice Department issued a scathing report on Ferguson's law enforcement, finding that the city's policing practices "disproportionately harm" African-American residents "and are driven in part by racial bias." The feds also found that the Ferguson Police Department "engages in a pattern of unconstitutional stops" and officers often arrest people without probable cause. Ferguson's "approach to law enforcement, shaped by the city's pressure to raise revenue, has resulted in a pattern and practice of constitutional violations," the report added.

As it relates to Ferguson's focus on generating revenue through policing, Gupta noted that the Justice Department, through its investigation, "observed that even minor code violations can sometimes result in multiple arrests, jail time and payments that exceed the cost of the original ticket many times over."

Gupta highlighted the story of a woman who received two parking tickets back in 2007 from the city of Ferguson that totaled $152.

"To date, she has paid $550 in fines and fees to the city of Ferguson," Gupta said. "She's been arrested twice for having unpaid tickets and she has spent six days in jail. Yet she still, inexplicably, owes Ferguson $541. Her story is only one of dozens of similar accounts that our investigation uncovered."

Since the Justice Department released its Ferguson report, which includes a list of recommended reforms, Gupta said various U.S. communities have started to look closer at their own policing policies and criminal justice systems. Gupta added that she knows several police chiefs who have made the Ferguson report required reading for their officers.

"Cities around the country are beginning to really re-examine their policing and municipal court practices," she said. "And I think that that is a positive step. But, obviously, we know there is much more work to do. In many communities, thoughtful police and city leaders are really working to re-prioritize community policing and rebuild community trust."

In Balitmore -- where Freddie Gray died in April from a spinal cord injury while in police custody -- city officials are also taking steps to address the fractured relationship between the police and community. At the request of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation, with the support of the city's police commissioner and police union, into the entire Baltimore Police Department.

"Wherever the investigation may lead - and we don't know what we're gonna find, and we won't prejudge the outcome. We have, in fact, had investigations that have led to no constitutional violations - our goal is to work with the community, with public officials, with law enforcement officers, with police unions to help build a stronger and better Baltimore," Gupta said. "And as events in both Cleveland and Baltimore show, the commitment of all of these local actors is critically essential if we're gonna move forward to restore trust where it's been badly eroded, to promote healing and address problems that are common to so many great cities in America."

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