WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors are targeting a rising number of law enforcement officers for alleged brutality, Justice Department statistics show. The heightened prosecutions come as the nation’s largest police union fears that agencies are dropping standards to fill thousands of vacancies and “scrimping” on training.
Cases in which police, prison guards and other law enforcement authorities have used excessive force or other tactics to violate victims’ civil rights have increased 25% (281 vs. 224) from fiscal years 2001 to 2007 over the previous seven years, the department says.
During the same period, the department says it won 53% more convictions (391 vs. 256). Some cases result in multiple convictions.
Federal records show the vast majority of police brutality cases referred by investigators are not prosecuted.
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University of Toledo law professor David Harris, who analyzes police conduct issues, says it will take time to determine whether the cases represent a sustained period of more aggressive prosecutions or the beginnings of a surge in misconduct.
The cases involve only a fraction of the estimated 800,000 police in the USA, says James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the nation’s largest police union.
Even so, he says, the FOP is concerned that reduced standards, training and promotion of less experienced officers into the higher police ranks could undermine more rigid supervision.
“These are things we are worried about,” Pasco says.
For the past few years, dozens of police departments across the country have scrambled to fill vacancies. The recruiting effort, which often features cash bonuses, has intensified since 9/11, because many police recruits have been drawn to military service.
In its post-Sept. 11 reorganization, the FBI listed police misconduct as one of its highest civil rights priorities to keep pace with an anticipated increase in police hiring through 2009.
The increasing Justice numbers generally correspond to a USA TODAY analysis of federal law enforcement prosecutions using data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Those data show 42 law enforcement prosecutions during the first 10 months of fiscal year 2007, a 66% increase from all of fiscal 2002 and a 61% rise from a decade ago.
David Burnham, the co-founder of the TRAC database, says prosecutions appear to be increasing, but “more important” are the numbers of cases prosecutors decline.
Last year, 96% of cases referred for prosecution by investigative agencies were declined.
In 2005, 98% were declined, a rate that has remained “extremely high” under every administration dating to President Carter, according to a TRAC report.
The high refusal rates, say Burnham and law enforcement analysts, result in part from the extraordinary difficulty in prosecuting abuse cases. Juries are conditioned to believe cops, and victims’ credibility is often challenged.
“When police are accused of wrongdoing, the world is turned upside down,” Harris says. “In some cases, it may be impossible for (juries) to make the adjustment.”