Chicago Case Could Overwhelm Tiny DOJ Unit That Investigates Police Civil Rights Abuses

The Special Litigation Section, which could barely fill a baseball team, conducts civil rights investigations into police departments.

WASHINGTON -- The federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department announced Monday will further stretch the resources of a small unit in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division that, under the Obama administration, is already investigating more local law enforcement agencies than ever before.

The Chicago Police Department -- with more than 13,000 sworn full-time officers -- is the largest city law enforcement agency that has ever been the subject of a so-called "pattern or practice" investigation that looks at widespread, systemic civil rights violations.

The federal government gained powers to investigate the practices of law enforcement agencies and try to implement reforms in the 1990s, in the wake of the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has opened a record 23 pattern and practice investigations in places including New Orleans, Cleveland, Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri. It is currently enforcing 17 agreements with law enforcement agencies and -- as of Monday, with the addition of Chicago -- has eight open investigations.

There are more than 12,000 local law enforcement agencies in the United States, with over 600,000 employees working for them full time. But the team of attorneys who work on police matters within the Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section could barely field a baseball team: Only about 18 of the few dozen lawyers in the section work on police matters full time.

"It's a ridiculously small number of people," says Jonathan M. Smith, who until the spring served as head of the Special Litigation Section for over four years. "These are very large, complicated cases, and it takes thousands of hours to complete the investigations." DOJ has described pattern or practice investigations as a "long-term and time-intensive process" that can last as long as a decade.

The Chicago Police Department is the largest city law enforcement agency that has ever been the subject of a so-called "pattern or practice" investigation.
The Chicago Police Department is the largest city law enforcement agency that has ever been the subject of a so-called "pattern or practice" investigation.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Smith said the Chicago investigation would be "enormous" and require a "huge amount of work" in the range of 8,000 to 10,000 total hours. At a press conference announcing the Chicago investigation, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, declined to say how long the investigation would take. But Gupta seemed to hint at the resource constraints during a panel at the White House last week, joking "don't remind me" when a colleague referred to the small number of lawyers in the Special Litigation Section.

The Obama administration's 2016 congressional budget request said the number of ongoing matters combined with the "increased demand for action on police misconduct" has "outstripped the Division’s available resources." Community groups and public officials were contacting DOJ on "at least a weekly basis" to open pattern or practice investigations, and the budget request said preliminary reviews "identified very serious concerns" that would benefit from DOJ intervention.

"Honestly, it's gonna be a real challenge. The resources for the section have already been limited, and the Obama administration has been much more aggressive," says William Yeomans, an American University law professor who spent 26 years at the Justice Department and served as acting head of the Civil Rights Division. "They are piling up a number of cases, and a number of cases are under investigation. What that means is that Chicago is going to be an enormous challenge. It is an enormous police force, and these investigations by their nature are very labor intensive."

The Obama administration’s renewed focus on pattern or practice cases came after a transition team report found that the Bush administration had “micromanaged” the Special Litigation Section and prevented it from “formulating or pursuing a meaningful agenda” and that under the Bush administration the unit had “not used its authority to address systemic problems of police misconduct.”

In the first five years of the Obama administration, the unit opened twice as many police pattern and practice investigations as DOJ had in the prior five years, during the Bush administration. But while the caseload has massively expanded, the number of lawyers working on pattern and practice cases hasn’t expanded.

Smith said the Justice Department hasn't had the capacity to look into every police department that may have warranted investigation, and instead has had to focus on cases that could be instructive and have a broader influence in the field of law enforcement. It has required some "rationing of resources" in situations where the Justice Department declined to intervene simply because it didn't have the human capital to take on another investigation.

"It's important for the division, with limited resources, to make decisions that are strategic and not only just go to where it's bad, because there's a lot of places in this country where policing is bad and where intervention is necessary," Smith said.

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