A New Era of Civil Rights Cases

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011 | About half of the civil rights cases investigated each year by the FBI involve accusations against police officers, said Eric Thomas, head of the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit.

In recent weeks, the FBI has added to its caseload an investigation into the death of mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas, who died last month after a violent confrontation with Fullerton police.

Eric Thomas didn’t discuss details of the Fullerton case, but in a telephone interview from his Washington office, he outlined the overall role of the FBI in investigating civil rights cases.

In fiscal 2010, according to FBI statistics, the civil rights unit investigated 750 cases in four categories — hate crimes, “color of law” violations, human trafficking, and Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act violations.

Thomas said about half of the cases involved so-called color of law accusations in which a police officer is accused of using excessive force or violations, such as demanding sex in exchange for not writing a citation.

In general, he said of the excessive-force cases, “some of it has to do with training” and “some of it has to do with the character issues of the law enforcement official.”

Sometimes, he said, it’s simply a matter of a law enforcement officer having “a bad day. The victim sets the officer off in some fashion.”

Thomas said his unit has looked for patterns so that it can recommend changes in training, hiring or other actions that might reduce the chances of an officer being accused of excessive use of force.

“We’ve not been able to put our finger on any particular reason,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, “the culture of the department” increases the odds that an officer may be accused of using excessive force, but “a vast majority are a random event.”

In a “vast majority (of cases) we actually exonerate the police officer. A vast majority of the time the officer did use reasonable force.”

While the number of cases investigated each year may remain stable, CBS Evening News reported last week that 52 criminal civil rights cases were filed against law enforcement officers last year by the U.S. Justice Department, the most in a year since the department started keeping track in 2000. The cases came from 20 departments nationwide.

The Civil Rights “Backstop”

Thomas said the civil rights unit often acts as a “backstop” in state and local cases, stepping in and filing civil rights cases when local authorities are unable to persuade a jury to convict.

During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, federal civil rights laws often were the only recourse when local law enforcement couldn’t or wouldn’t prosecute hate crimes, including murder, against blacks in the South.

Thomas said his unit still prosecutes hate crimes of all types but rarely encounters a local jurisdiction unwilling to investigate and prosecute violations of the four civil rights categories.

But local laws aren’t always adequate or juries may be unwilling to convict for certain kinds of offenses, he said. In those cases, federal civil rights laws can be used, Thomas said, but he didn’t discuss whether this was the case in Fullerton.

Two years ago crimes against gays, lesbians and transgender individuals were added to the federal civil rights laws.

Another of the newer areas is crimes against those seeking access to medical clinics that provide birth control, abortion and other reproductive health treatments.

Those cases accounted for just 2 percent of the Civil Rights Unit’s work last year. Attacks have included threatening phone calls, thrreatening mail and murder.

Human trafficking — sex slaves, forced labor and domestic work slavery — is the area where complaints are increasing the fastest, said Thomas.

The number of victims tends to be higher for forced-labor crimes, because they often involve groups of agricultural workers in the Southeast or California. Most victims of the sex crimes come from the United States or Mexico, he said, while most forced-labor victims come from China.

“I think it’s just the world we live in,” said Thomas. Human trafficking is “a very lucrative crime.”

Victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. tend to be teenage runaways and those escaping poverty in other nations.

“Until those kinds of conditions change,” he said, “I don’t know that we’ll be able to do much to curb it.”

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.


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