Opinion

The Great Debate

Tragedy in Ferguson: What the Justice Department can do next

Protesters walk through smoke as police clear a street after the passing of a midnight curfew meant to stem ongoing demonstrations in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, in FergusonThe tragic killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson has brought to the surface long-simmering tensions between the Ferguson Police Department and the Missouri community it serves. In the shooting’s immediate aftermath, the focus has been on whether Wilson will be prosecuted criminally and convicted for the shooting. In the longer term, however, the focus must ultimately turn to a broader agenda, including substantial reforms in the Ferguson Police Department if it is to regain the full trust and confidence of the community.

After Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to the St. Louis suburb on Wednesday, he vowed that the Justice Department would stay involved to help heal the relationship between the police department and the public.  While many of the essential facts of the encounter between Brown and Wilson remain unknown, we do know that criminal convictions of police officers for shooting people are few and far between. The killing of Brown may turn out to be the rare incident that results in a criminal conviction by state or federal prosecutors, but statistics suggest that outcome is unlikely.

So what more can Holder and the Justice Department do?  Fortunately, whatever the outcome of the criminal process, they still have important tools at their disposal.

Attorney General Eric Holder talks with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake's Place Restaurant in FlorrissantOne crucial order of business will be to identify any credible allegations that the Ferguson Police Department used excessive force or other unconstitutional practices in responding to the demonstrations. The department’s frightening display of heavy weaponry established that it overreacted to peaceful protests, as did its heavy-handed treatment of the press.  It will be essential to launch investigations into the credible allegations and pursue criminal prosecutions if any are appropriate.

The collection of these incidents, as well as incidents in the relatively recent past, will serve a second purpose. The attorney general has authority to investigate and file suit against a police department that has engaged in a pattern of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal laws. The investigation leading to such a suit can include an in-depth examination of the Ferguson Police Department’s use of force, its conduct in searches, surveillance and making arrests (including allegations of racial profiling and other bias) and its procedures for training, supervising and disciplining officers.

from Stories I’d like to see:

A follow-up on Dasani, fitting Credit Suisse punishments, when Hollywood meets Beijing

credit suisse

1. What happened to Dasani?

Remember Dasani Coates?

She’s the homeless Brooklyn girl whose plight the New York Times’ Andrea Elliott chronicled in a moving series of Times features last December. The last we heard about Dasani in the Times was this February 21 follow-up by Elliott and Rebecca R. Ruiz. They reported that New York City officials had decided to move 400 families, including Dasani’s, out of the squalid shelter where she had been living and into rent-supported apartments.

What’s happened since? One would think that with all the attention Dasani received -- much of it focused on how intelligent, articulate and determined she was in the face of unspeakable adversity -- that she might have been recruited by now into a prestige private school or otherwise showered with attention and even donations that would have dramatically improved her circumstances.

Is that true? What about her parents and siblings? And what about the trust fund established for the family following Elliott’s series?

from Stories I’d like to see:

Sealing deadly court files, and Obama and his Cabinet

1. Sealing deadly court files:

In the wake of continuing disclosures about General Motors’ failure to acknowledge critical safety issues related to faulty ignition switches, there’s a looming issue that has not been addressed: How litigation settlements negotiated by private parties can result in court-sanctioned cover-ups that endanger the public.

We now know that there were several cases in which the families of people who died in crashes after ignition switches failed quietly received cash settlements from GM.

In return for the cash, the plaintiffs not only promised to withhold the settlement details but also agreed with GM that the court files would be sealed. In some cases, those sealed records included documents and transcripts of pre-trial deposition testimony that contained evidence gathered about the dangers of the faulty switches.

Holder follows GOP lead in easing harsh drug laws

Attorney General Eric Holder issued a directive last week, instructing all U.S. Attorneys to revisit current drug cases involving low-level, non-violent offenders and waive harsh mandatory sentencing requirements where appropriate.

In doing so, the White House is turning its attention to one issue — criminal justice reform — where Democrats and Republicans have actually found common ground.

Though crime levels have been falling for the last 20 years, incarceration rates and prison costs have sharply increased. It is the states, particularly those under Republican control, that are leading the way here — enacting reforms that have cut incarceration rates and costs and led to significant taxpayer savings.

The myth of youthful drug offenders

Attorney General Eric Holder’s call for ending mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders has sparked a national debate on drug policy that should have begun 25 years ago.

During last Monday’s speech on drug policy reform, Holder repeatedly singled out “young people” as a special target, particularly “the fact that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system — as victims as well as perpetrators.”

This is a common refrain — but increasingly untrue. Law enforcement and public health agencies data now shows that U.S. drug abuse and crime problems have been shifting to older and whiter demographics over the last two decades — creating new realities for debate and policy.

Bradley Manning and the real war on leaks

Army Private First Class Bradley Manning in handcuffs for his motion hearing in Fort Meade in Maryland June 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana

The most significant dispute over leaks this week is not in Washington, where Attorney General Eric Holder is under fire for the searches of journalists’ files. It’s 40 miles north in Fort Meade, Maryland, where the trial of Army Private First Class Bradley Manning begins Monday.

Manning is facing a court-martial, or military prosecution, for sending 700,000 government documents to Wikileaks.  It was the “biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history,” as Reuters reported, and the U.S. government believes that makes Manning an enemy of the state.

The failure to prosecute corporate crime undermines U.S. justice

Imagine you are driving down the highway at 90 mph where the posted speed limit is 55 mph. As a result of your speeding, you lose control of your vehicle. And you cause a wreck that kills people.

Here’s a sure bet ‑ you will be convicted of a crime. You will admit wrongdoing. And you will be punished.

Now suppose a corporation engages in illegal activity while operating a coal mine. And that illegal activity leads to the death of 29 of its workers.

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