WASHINGTON — When the U.S. Department of Justice investigates a local police department accused of unconstitutional abuses, one of the most important aspects of its work is to simply listen.
The residents of these cities are often frustrated with a law enforcement system that has ignored their complaints. Public forums with the DOJ investigators give them the chance, finally, to share their painful and sometime brutal stories ― and to know that the world has heard them.
“You’ve got to understand that there is no accountability. Where are people supposed to go? Who are folks supposed to tell their stories to?” said Pamela Cytrynbaum, executive director of the Chicago Innocence Center.
The Chicago Police Department along with those in Baltimore and a half-dozen other cities are currently undergoing “pattern or practice” investigations by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Under President Barack Obama, DOJ has made it a priority to look into police forces accused of widespread misconduct and unconstitutional behavior, including excessive use of force and illegal searches. That’s in sharp contrast to the Bush administration, during which such probes slowed to a halt.
“Every American expects and deserves the protection of law enforcement that is effective, that is responsive, that is respectful and most importantly constitutional,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in announcing the Chicago investigation eight months ago.
For citizens harmed by law enforcement, internal police department reviews and citizen oversight boards seem to offer little to no recourse ― at least in the cities being investigated. Last year, the Invisible Institute, a civic journalism organization, released over 28,000 citizen complaints of misconduct by Chicago police, covering both verbal and physical abuse, that were filed between 2011 and 2015. Sixty-one percent of those complaints were filed by black Americans, but less than 2 percent of those were sustained.
In Baltimore, police union contracts allow “peer” officers to serve on the hearing board for citizen complaints. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland argues that practice impedes accountability since officers have an interest in protecting their colleagues from discipline.
Three summers ago, Tawanda Jones received a call that turned her world on its head: Her 44-year-old brother, Tyrone West, was dead after an altercation with Baltimore police. Though the official autopsy report states that West died because of a pre-existing cardiac condition, Jones believes that her brother died as a result of police abuse, and a second autopsy from an independent medical examiner found his cause of death to be positional asphyxia.
Seeking justice, Jones turned to community activism and led demonstrations in her brother’s name. But, as is often the case with police-involved deaths, no charges were brought against the officers involved.
“If it wasn’t for me and my family pushing so hard, no one would even know about Tyrone West,” Jones told The Huffington Post.
Unlike more recent incidents of police brutality, West’s death was not captured on video. Jones believes the lack of footage has made justice much more difficult to attain.
But with the Justice Department in town, the opportunity to tell her brother’s story to the federal lawyers has been cathartic.
“We’ve been crying our tears, and our cries have fallen on deaf ears for decades,” Jones said, referring to the long history of police violence against the black community in Baltimore. “So when you see people of any kind, whether it be the DOJ or the U.N., and we hear that they’re going to be here at this specific spot on this specific day, we feel obligated to talk to them.”
The probe of the Baltimore Police Department, a relatively large force of over 3,000 officers, has lasted more than a year ― twice as long as the Ferguson, Missouri, investigation, which focused on a tiny police department with less than 100 employees. Jones has attended many of the DOJ’s public forums in Baltimore and said she has found their team to be very responsive, even accepting her invitations to attend community meetings.
“It meant a lot for me to see the guy from the DOJ when he came and sat down with me, took down my information and attended several forums. And then when we were hosting our community meeting, the police commissioner didn’t show up but the Department of Justice guy did,” she said.
That sentiment is echoed by Ken Jiretsu, a board member of Baltimore’s Transgender Alliance. The group invited DOJ to their community meetings in an effort to make sure investigators heard the voices of trans people. At one such gathering, Jiretsu, a transgender man, shared his own difficult experience dealing with Baltimore police.
“I called to ask for officers to escort [my son] to the hospital. When they arrived, one of the officers that was with them had misgendered me, so I had to correct her. She had said, ‘Miss,’ and I told her, ‘It’s sir,’ and she was like, ‘Oh, OK, how was I supposed to know?’ Then she said, ‘So, man, sir, whatever you want to be called,’” Jiretsu said.
“Her colleagues that were with her were also laughing,” said Jiretsu, “and it ended up becoming a triggering situation for me.” The fact that his children were witnesses to the encounter in his own home made it even more upsetting.
After hearing his story, Jiretsu said, the DOJ took his information and promised to follow up.
“I think a lot of them are sincere,” he said. “They were sincere in listening to what we had to say. The two that I personally spoke to seemed very interested in what we had to say.”
“I’m sorry if you feel like if you’ve heard one account of a police officer holding a gun to a 3-year-old’s head, then you’ve heard them all. We must have an accounting of what’s going on.”
The DOJ’s efforts to engage with local communities during these investigations aren’t really geared, however, toward capturing and resolving individual complaints against officers. The Civil Rights Division’s efforts concentrate more on broad reforms and remedies ― which means the federal team isn’t there to hear everyone’s tale. For some residents, that has been the most frustrating aspect of these investigations.
Turnout for the public forums in Baltimore has been rather high. One event had to be moved from a location that could hold only 80 people to one that could accommodate over 300.
The DOJ teams try to hold forums “throughout the investigation and target different parts of the community so we can hear not only from the greatest volume, but a wide variety of folks so we can get a better sense of the breadth,” a Justice Department spokesperson told The Huffington Post. Three to four events are typically held near the start, which gives the team an opportunity to explain to the community how the investigation will be conducted while also soliciting citizen testimony.
In Chicago, the DOJ has hosted four public forums so far, all on weeknights ― a schedule that some have criticized for shutting out people who don’t work 9 to 5. After hearing from friends that the first forum had a turnout of fewer than 40 people, Frances McDonald, a student at the University of Chicago, said she felt compelled to show up at the next one.
“Some people were screaming and yelling. Some people went past their allotted time to speak because they were so angry, and there were some people in the crowd crying,” McDonald said. “Some parents of children with mental disabilities spoke of their children’s experiences with the police.”
McDonald wasn’t there to tell yet another story, but to witness what members of her community had to say. And she came away convinced of at least one thing.
“I definitely think there should be a few more forums. I’d say at least 10 more,” said McDonald.
The Chicago police force is the largest department the DOJ is investigating. The probe was prompted by the October 2014 death of Laquan McDonald and the subsequent coverup. A video of the shooting was finally released more than a year later, and those images spurred protests around the city. But Chicago’s history of police abuse extends further back. From the secretive interrogation facility at Homan Square to the tortured confessions elicited by former police commander Jon Burge, the city’s black and Latino residents have complained of police violence for over 40 years.
“Given what communities have suffered under in this town for so long, it is appalling to me that there are not more opportunities for the public to tell their stories,” Cytrynbaum of the Chicago Innocence Center said. “Even if they need to rent out a stadium, they need to hear this. It needs to be on the record.”
The Justice Department spokesperson told HuffPost that they plan to host more forums in Chicago, including one or two on the weekends.
“We had already planned to do more. We were just hammering out details,” the spokesperson said.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the DOJ is aiming for a very high turnout. “If 10,000 people show up, it won’t really be an effective way to engage with folks,” the spokesperson pointed out. “It won’t be a fruitful or engaging conversation, and we won’t be able to hear from the vast majority of people who come. So I think it’s a balance.”
Still, Cytrynbaum insists that the DOJ needs to listen to as many tales as community members want to share.
“I’m sorry if it’s tiring for people to listen to these stories. I’m sorry if you feel like if you’ve heard one account of a police officer holding a gun to a 3-year-old’s head, then you’ve heard them all,” she said. “We must have an accounting of what’s going on, and the only way to do that is to make sure all of these stories get told and get counted.”
As for Jones, the impending end of the Baltimore investigation triggers new worries. She sees the DOJ team as the watchdog Baltimoreans have been pleading for.
“These people that hold some type of power and can enlighten our situation need to be around constantly. Because at the end of the day, I feel like nobody oversees these police officers. They get to do whatever they want to do,” she said.