WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration wants local law enforcement agencies to crack down on officer misconduct. But the federal law enforcement agencies within Obama's own Department of Justice haven’t gotten the message.
DOJ’s law enforcement agencies -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Prisons and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) -- have many of the same problems as their local counterparts. Their disciplinary processes are opaque. Their internal affairs offices don't disclose basic data, such as how many complaints they receive each year and what percentage are sustained. Like the internal affairs divisions of many local law enforcement agencies, these federal units face counterproductive pressure from agency leaders, are not seen as a place for officers to build a career and have few incentives to aggressively investigate misconduct.
Examples abound. The head of the DEA resigned earlier this year after members of Congress expressed outrage about a pattern of light discipline agents faced in connection with cartel-funded “sex parties” with prostitutes. ATF managers routinely failed to report allegations to the Internal Affairs Division at headquarters and broke policy by handling sexual misconduct allegations on the local level. The U.S. Marshals Service -- which has been plagued by questions over suspicious spending and allegations that leaders in the agency improperly influenced hiring decisions -- has struggled to fill positions in its internal affairs office, which this year was headed by a deputy director who was found to have violated ethical codes by using his position to help friends and acquaintances get internships at another agency. At the Federal Bureau of Prisons -- which, due to its size and the direct interactions employees have with inmates, typically is subject to the most complaints -- employee misconduct is frequently ignored and never formally reported. Many FBI employees say their superiors aren’t held to the same standards as low-level workers.
“The feds are laying down the law to the locals. … So what are they doing?" said Michael Bromwich, who served as DOJ Inspector General from 1994 to 1999. "Are they holding themselves accountable to the same standards they’re insisting local law enforcement hold themselves to?”
““The feds are laying down the law to the locals. … So what are they doing?"”
Law enforcement agencies across the country frequently fail to hold their officers accountable for misconduct, so it’s not terribly surprising that those within the DOJ have the same the issues. But the Justice Department has been seen as a solution for troubled law enforcement agencies, most recently in Chicago, where its investigation will likely focus on failures in the internal accountability process. On a regular basis, communities across the United States call for the federal government to intervene and help bring about reform in their local police department, though only a handful of lawyers in the Civil Rights Division are regularly working on police oversight.
Several DOJ investigations have focused on problems within the internal affairs departments. In Missouri, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said the Ferguson Police Department needed to provide “regular public reports on allegations of misconduct, including the nature of the complaint and its resolution.” After an investigation of the Cleveland Police Department, the Justice Department reached an agreement with the city that required its internal affairs unit to be headed by a civilian who is not a current or retired law enforcement officer. The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services said the St. Louis County Police Department had a “pattern of light discipline” for cases of ethical failing and untruthfulness and needed to “reinforce the openness of the complaint process” on its website.
Each of DOJ's law enforcement agencies handles complaints differently. But lack of transparency is the norm. None of the disciplinary units within DOJ agencies issues regular public reports. Those inside their internal affairs departments have close ties to law enforcement. Many of them offer little to no information on their websites about how civilians can make complaints.
Over the summer, The Huffington Post submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, seeking copies of reports each of the internal affairs offices sends to the IG outlining the cases they’ve dealt with. The office did not provide the reports -- a decision HuffPost appealed -- but the request was forwarded to each agency. None of the agencies responded.
In response to a separate, earlier HuffPost FOIA request, DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility claimed it did "not produce monthly or annual summaries of OPR cases." The U.S. Marshals Service has not acknowledged a FOIA request another reporter submitted in September asking for its internal affairs log. The FBI denied HuffPost’s recent request to expedite a FOIA seeking summaries of disciplinary cases that are sent to employees.
While federal law enforcement agencies have to keep privacy concerns in mind, “there is no credible justification for federal law enforcement agencies not providing aggregate data on discipline,” Bromwich said.
Officers in the city of South Gate, in Los Angeles County, have been warned to show restraint when members of the public record them. They’re not supposed to overreact. They’re definitely not supposed to behave the way a uniformed officer did in a video posted to YouTube in April, which shows him smashing the cell phone of a woman who was recording police activity in the city.
The video, which went viral and now has over 1.6 million views on YouTube, leaves no questions about what happened. A heavily armed officer calmly walked toward a woman who was filming police activity. When he got close, he ran, snatched the cell phone out of her hand and chucked it at the ground. With his rifle on his back, he took his left foot and kicked the cell phone in the direction of the woman, Beatriz Paez, who had backed up in shock.
The police chief in South Gate was relieved to learn the officer who smashed the phone was not one of his own.
It was a deputy U.S. marshal.
In April, the U.S. Marshals Service issued a statement indicating they were aware of the video and “reviewing” the incident.
“How long does it take to determine U.S. marshals should not rip cell phones out of bystanders' hands, smash them on the ground, and then kick them?” asked Colleen Flynn, the lawyer representing Paez.
Nine months later, despite the clear video evidence, the marshals haven’t said what, if any, disciplinary action the deputy faced for his misconduct. He still hasn't been publicly identified.