Fox News has repeatedly dismissed the federal civil rights investigation into the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, calling it "political optics" and an example of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder playing "the race card." In fact, under long-standing civil rights law, the federal government has parallel investigative powers alongside local authorities and frequently investigates local police departments that may have a pattern or practice of abuse.
Federal Investigation Underway In Case Of Michael Brown Shooting
Federal Investigators Focus On Violations Of Federal Civil Rights, Not State Criminal Charges. The Wall Street Journal explained that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is working parallel to the St. Louis County Police. The federal investigation is a "civil-rights probe," whereas the local police department is in charge of the main criminal investigation.
[T]he decision of whether to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of the unarmed 18-year-old is subject to a process that can be exhaustive and prolonged, with any outcome expected to be weeks or more away. And the U.S. Justice Department's civil-rights probe probably will take months, a law-enforcement official said.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch could begin presenting evidence on Wednesday to a 12-member grand jury, which will decide on criminal charges, his office said.
St. Louis County Police are in charge of the main investigation into Mr. Brown's death. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into whether his civil rights were violated. [The Wall Street Journal, 8/18/14]
Fox News Claims Federal Investigation Unusual And Unprecedented
On Fox, WSJ's Jason Riley: DOJ Investigation Is "Being Done Purely For Optics." During the August 18 broadcast of Fox News' Special Report With Bret Baier, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley said that the Department of Justice is conducting its own investigation for political optics:
RILEY: I've talked to some former federal prosecutors in the Department of Justice and they find this very odd, this parallel investigation going on. They say normally if the feds sit back, they let the local authorities do their job. They see something amiss then they intervene. That has not been alleged here. Or if the police department has a history of civil rights violations, then the Department of Justice might intervene early. Again, that has not been alleged here.
I think this is a parallel investigation being done purely for optics, political pressure that the president is feeling from his left to be shown doing something, I think that's what driving it. [Fox News, Special Report, 8/18/14]
Fox News Legal Analyst Peter Johnson Jr.,: Federal Autopsy Of Brown Is "Absolute Garbage." On Fox & Friends, guest host Peter Johnson Jr., commented on the federal autopsy of Michael Brown, part of the federal civil rights investigation, calling the procedure "inherently political" and "absolute garbage" (emphasis added):
KILMEADE: Are you surprised the attorney general weighed in so heavily? He's given in to the family's request for a third autopsy by the federal government. He said yes. Is it right?
JOHNSON JR.: It's inherently political. It's not right. It's wrong. Michael Baden, greatest forensic pathologist in the country, has done independent autopsies. The state is doing an autopsy. This is done to appease crowds. This is done to mollify the masses. This is done to say the president is in it, the president cares about Michael Brown. This is absolute garbage. This is nonsense. It's disrespectful to Michael Baden. It's disrespectful to the local authorities. And the federal government is saying that time and time again, forty F.B.I. Agents, they're saying the president is calling on three, four times a day. That's what he is preoccupied with during his vacation. He's saying I'm going to see what happens there in Ferguson. I'm going to get justice done. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 8/18/14]
Fox's Bret Baier Said Federal Investigation Implies Local Investigation Doesn't Meet Standards. On August 19, Fox News' Bret Baier claimed that the federal investigation into civil rights violations implied that the local investigation into the death of Michael Brown was not "meeting standards." Fox News guest and Wall Street Journal editor Jason Riley claimed that a federal investigation was unprecedented and argued that it was President Obama's attempt to be a "racial healer." [Fox News, Special Report, 8/19/14]
Frequent Fox Guest: Obama And Eric Holder Are Playing The Race Card. Regular Fox News guest Niger Innis, an executive director of TeaParty.net argued that President Obama and Eric Holder's handling of the Michael Brown case was an example of playing "the race card" because a "black attorney general is investigating it." [Fox News, On The Record with Greta Van Susteren, 8/15/14]
In Fact, Federal Investigations Into Deaths Caused By Law Officers Are Based On Long-Standing Civil Rights Law
AP: "Many Federal Civil Rights Cases Involve Police Or Other Authorities Abusing Their Power." The Associated Press explained that the federal government's mandate to investigate potential abuses of authority by state authorities dates back to Reconstruction through modern cases such as the Rodney King beating. AP pointed out that federal investigations can involve hate crimes and civil rights violations, especially in "racially charged cases":
The federal government has claimed its power of protecting civil rights against violence as far back as the Reconstruction era. Empowered by constitutional amendments and early civil rights laws passed after the Civil War, the government sought to protect newly freed blacks and their voting rights, mostly from the Ku Klux Klan.
Many federal civil rights cases involve police or other authorities abusing their power under "the color of law." Unlike in hate crime cases, prosecutors don't have to prove that these civil rights violations were motivated by racism or other bias.
Still, the best-known convictions came in racially charged cases:
--Rodney King led law officers on a high-speed chase in March 1991 and, once stopped, was slow to obey their commands. Police reacted by kicking King, clubbing him with their batons and shocking him with stun guns, causing 11 skull fractures. A witness' video of white policemen pummeling a black man as he lay on the ground played over and over on national television. Four Los Angeles officers were charged with assault; a jury with no black members acquitted them. The verdicts sparked rioting that set Los Angeles aflame and cost 55 lives, prompting King's famous plea "Can we all get along?" The Justice Department charged the officers with civil rights violations. After a second trial, two were convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Two were acquitted. [Associated Press, 8/18/14]
Since 1994, Many Police Departments In U.S. Have Entered Into Consent Decrees Following Federal Civil Rights Investigations. Joe Domanick, associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), has explained that the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed in 1994 in response to the police beating of Rodney King and gave the U.S. government the power to sue police agencies for a "pattern and practice" of violating civil rights. DOJ can compel these police departments to change their actions through a consent decree and subsequent federal monitoring, a type of court supervision "about 20 cities have entered into":
One of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the closing decades of the 20th century is also one of the most overlooked.
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, passed following the savage 1991 beating of African American motorist Rodney King by four LAPD officers and the catastrophic Los Angeles Riots a year later, gave the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice an extraordinary mandate.
One of the law's provisions empowered the government to sue police agencies anywhere in the country if they exhibited a "pattern and practice" of using excessive force and/or violating people's civil rights--and compel them, under what's known as a "consent decree," to change those practices.
Since the law came into effect 20 years ago, two things have become apparent: how resistant many police departments remain to fundamental reform; and how critical, therefore, the consent decree has been--first, in forcing police departments to jettison their often brutal racist, and unaccountable warrior-cop cultures; and second, in transforming them into organizations committed to policing constitutionally and with legitimacy among the populations they serve.
Currently about 20 cities have entered into consent decrees or "memos of understanding" with the Department of Justice (DOJ), usually under threat of civil rights lawsuits filed by the DOJ if they refused.
The departments and police agencies vary widely: they have included Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Oakland, New Orleans, Portland, Oregon, Cleveland, New York City, Detroit, the New Jersey State Police, the Virgin Islands PD, and, most recently, departments in Seattle, Albuquerque, NM and Newark, NJ. [The Crime Report, 7/15/14]
Investigations Into Police Departments For Civil Rights Violations Intensified In 2011. According to The Washington Post, the Obama administration ramped up investigations of civil rights abuses in local police departments nationwide in 2011, addressing a problem "experts on police brutality" had long complained about:
The Obama administration is ramping up civil rights enforcement against local police nationwide, opening a number of investigations to determine whether officers are guilty of brutality or discrimination against Hispanics and other minorities.
In recent months, the Justice Department has begun inquiries into major city police departments such as Portland, Ore., where officers shot several people who had mental health issues, and Seattle, where police were accused of gunning down a homeless Native American woodcarver. The department issued a scathing report earlier this month accusing Puerto Rico police of a "staggering level of crime and corruption.''
Justice's Civil Rights Division is conducting 17 probes of police and sheriff departments -- the largest number in its 54-year history. The investigations are civil, meaning they will not lead to criminal charges, but can result in court-enforced reforms.
The federal effort, part of the administration's heightened enforcement of civil rights laws, has won praise from advocacy groups and experts on police brutality.
Robert McNeilly, who was police chief in Pittsburgh during a five-year court-approved monitoring period after a Justice Department probe, said "there is some unnecessary alarm about these investigations.''
"There is no doubt it was an enormous help because dramatic change happened so quickly,'' said McNeilly, whose former department was accused of excessive force and other violations and released from monitoring in 2002.
"It changed the culture of the entire organization,'' he said. "We became more accountable.'' [The Washington Post,9/17/11]
Connor Land and Cal Colgan contributed research to this report.