Protecting Civil Rights: A Leadership Guide for State, Local, and Tribal Law Enforcement


Executive Summary

PROTECTING CIVIL RIGHTS:

A Leadership Guide for State, Local, and Tribal Law Enforcement

BACKGROUND

Protecting Civil Rights: A Leadership Imperative 

All law enforcement leaders recognize the ethical and legal imperatives to which they and their officers must adhere to ensure that civil rights of all individuals in their communities are protected. Law enforcement officers, in fact, are the most visible and largest contingent of the nation’s guardians of civil rights. Every police officer commits to upholding the nation’s prime guarantor of rights, the U.S. Constitution, when sworn into office. To be effective, a police department and its individual officers must be seen primarily as protectors of civil rights, rather than agents of social control whose main purpose is to limit individual freedoms. The effectiveness of police in their varied missions—from law enforcement to community service—depends on the trust and confidence of the community. Public trust and confidence are severely reduced when individuals’ civil rights are compromised. And when any community perceives that its civil rights are systematically violated by the police, all sense of trust, cooperation, and partnership between the police and that community will be undermined. Understanding these ethical imperatives, law enforcement leaders must be continually vigilant to ensure that the actions of their officers do not violate civil rights and do not compromise public support. Officers are granted a tremendous amount of authority and discretion to enforce the law, that is, to protect individual rights from being infringed upon by others in the community. At the same time, officers themselves must act within the confines of the Constitution while executing their tremendous power and wide discretion. They must never consider themselves above the law while executing their responsibility to enforce the law. This commitment is what distinguishes police in constitutionally based, democratic societies like ours from police in nondemocratic countries, where they too often are perceived as oppressive agents of a government whose main purpose is to restrict, rather than protect, the rights of civilians.

 Across the United States, law enforcement personnel have an overwhelmingly positive record of accomplishment for respecting and protecting civil rights. Leaders should find it heartening and a source of pride that the vast majority of the countless interactions that officers have with civilians result in actions that are conducted lawfully, professionally, and within constitutional boundaries. The fact that the overwhelming majority of police officers routinely respect civil rights under the most trying and volatile conditions is remarkable. Given the risks inherent in police work and the grave consequences that can occur when civil rights are violated, law enforcement leaders must be unwavering in holding their officers accountable. Their officers are vested with authority and discretion that can be abused. Unlike any other profession, the possibility of violating civil rights, or being perceived as violating civil rights, is inherent in many of the duties officers are required to perform on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, the notoriety and harm that arise from even isolated instances of civil rights violations can easily overshadow the vast majority of police-civilian encounters that are performed respectfully and professionally. Law enforcement leaders bear the tremendous responsibility to ensure that individual officers and units within their agencies uphold the law and its most basic guarantees.

 Realistically, law enforcement leaders recognize that on rare occasions officers will violate a civilian’s civil rights, wittingly or unwittingly. On even rarer occasions, groups of officers or small factions within an agency may act without regard for civil rights, perhaps even asserting that effective law enforcement can come only at the expense of civil rights. Leaders must be resolute in their responses to isolated incidents of civil rights violations to minimize damage and set a clear example. In the case of officers who systematically violate civil rights, their behavior must not be tolerated and action must be decisive and uncompromising.

Effective leaders, supported by the managers who serve them, must strive to identify and intervene when officers exhibit potentially problematic behavior before it escalates to the point of violating civil rights. Against this backdrop, the seriousness of law enforcement leaders’ responsibility to communicate a consistent and far-reaching commitment to civil rights protections cannot be overstated. Although laws, departmental policy directives, and standard operating procedures are critically important, law enforcement executives’ leadership and communication skills are the most critical elements for ensuring that officers regularly exercise sound judgment and engage in professional and ethical policing. Law enforcement leaders can and must demonstrate a fundamental and complete allegiance to civil rights protections in a coordinated manner using multiple approaches. They must clearly convey a simultaneous commitment to effective law enforcement and civil rights protection; they must codify this commitment in their agency’s mission statements; they must ensure that their department’s policies are clear, sound, and consistent with civil rights guarantees; they must train and supervise officers in manners that are consistent with this commitment; and they must respond to alleged civil rights violations with vigilance and with fair and decisive action. As law enforcement leaders succeed in these regards and make these efforts transparent to the public, they validate the core premise that civil rights protection is not only an ethical and legal imperative but a practical imperative as well. Protecting civil rights is good for police, good for the community, and essential for maintaining the partnerships that must exist between the two.

Federal Investigations: A Response to “Patterns or Practices” of Civil Rights Violations Despite the ethical, legal, and practical imperatives to protect civil rights, law enforcement officers occasionally abrogate their oaths. When these unwitting or intentional violations of citizens’ civil rights go unaddressed, they can escalate into more widespread patterns or practices of civil rights violations that can undermine the credibility of an entire law enforcement agency and erode public trust and confidence. Moving beyond isolated instances, pattern or practice violations of civil rights comprise an urgent call to law enforcement executives and the municipal, county, or state governments under which they serve to reassume the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that officers uphold their oaths of office and adherence to constitutional guarantees.

During the last decade, the federal government has responded to such situations in the rare, but urgent circumstances where allegations of pattern or practice civil rights violations have arisen. The passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (Public Law No: 103-322) enabled the federal government to take action to remedy any pattern or practice of conduct by state and local law enforcement agencies “that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” In response to this enabling legislation, the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice assumed the responsibility for investigating alleged pattern or practice civil rights violations and for establishing remedies to such violations.

During the last decade, the Special Litigation Section has investigated an array of alleged pattern or practice civil rights violations including the following:

  • Unlawful or excessive use of force
  • Inadequate training on use-of-force techniques
  • Racial profiling
  • Illegal stops and searches
  • Intimidation by police
  • Harassment of civilians in retaliation for reported misconduct
  • Inadequate supervision
  • Failure to investigate alleged officer misconduct.

Investigations by the Special Litigation Section resulting in a determination of actionable civil rights violations generally have been resolved through negotiated agreements in the form of memorandums of agreement (MOA) or consent decrees. Through such agreements, the federal government and law enforcement agencies agree to a course of action to correct the patterns of civil rights violations and to remedy the conditions that allowed the violations to occur. Since 1994, 14 agencies have been or currently are under federal monitoring as a result of civil rights violation investigations. While these 14 agencies represent an infinitesimal fraction of the country’s nearly 18,000 state, county, local, tribal, and special jurisdictional law enforcement agencies, the impact of these federal investigations and agreements has been and continues to be profound and far-reaching.

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