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In 1994, Congress promulgated a significant piece of legislation that may prove to have an extremely important impact on the operation of local police departments. Section 14141 of Title 42, enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, prohibits governmental authorities or those acting on their behalf from engaging in "a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officials" that deprives persons of "rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States." Whenever the Attorney General has reasonable cause to believe that a violation has occurred, the Justice Department is authorized to sue for equitable and declaratory relief "to eliminate the pattern or practice." At this writing, the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has brought two civil suits pursuant to Section 14141 – suits that have resulted in consent decrees with the police departments of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Steubenville, Ohio. The Department, moreover, is reported to be investigating or monitoring at least nine other police agencies – in Los Angeles, California; Orange County, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; East Point, Michigan; Buffalo, New York; New York, New York; Washington, D.C.; Charleston, West Virginia; and Columbus, Ohio-in order to decide "whether to seek judicial orders on respect for governing law."

Section 14141 was an outgrowth of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police and the Christopher Commission's subsequent finding that the Los Angeles Police Department had in effect condoned brutal conduct by its officers through a pattern of lax supervision and inadequate investigation of complaints. Prior to this legislation, police abuse experts had frequently charged that the Justice Department "plays virtually no active role in holding local police accountable for abiding by the Constitution." Section 14141 substantially enhances the Department's authority with regard to local police affairs by affording the Civil Rights Division a statutory basis for intervening in police "patterns and practices" in ways analogous to statutes that have authorized federal government intervention in other spheres-like voting, housing, public accommodations, and access to public facilities. To many, such legislation is long overdue. At the same time, concern has also been expressed that the law at least potentially threatens dangerous intrusion into local police operations by federal civil rights attorneys who lack the capability and understanding to interfere in police administration-even for the laudatory goal of ending abusive practices.

This essay does not purport to provide an empirical account of the effects – beneficial and deleterious, anticipated and unanticipated – that Section 14141 has already had on the affairs of local police. The law is too recent for such an assessment, and its future impact will very much depend on how it is enforced. The focus of this essay, then, is limited to a close examination of key provisions of the two consent decrees already in place. This inquiry, though narrow, is important for at least three reasons.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Law | Law Enforcement and Corrections