What’s Really Going on with Holder’s Civil-Rights Crusade against Police Departments
Federal investigations of the Garner and Brown cases are just a pretext.
Civil-rights investigations in Ferguson and Staten Island? No, what denizens of St. Louis and New York City ought to be worried about right now is . . . the crime wave overtaking Seattle.
If you don’t understand why, then you probably thought Obamacare was about covering the uninsured. Like its health-care “reform” campaign, the Obama Left’s civil-rights crusade is about control — central control of state law enforcement by Washington.
The deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York are each tragic in their own way. But in neither is there a federal civil-rights case to be had. To think otherwise, you have to be getting your advice from Al Sharpton — the huckster confidant of President Obama and Attorney General Holder.
The law of civil rights requires the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, usually driven by racial prejudice, willfully acted — violently in these cases — with the evil purpose to deprive a person of specific federal rights. Let’s put aside the utter absence of proof that race had any bearing on what happened in Staten Island, for example, where police supervised by an African-American officer came to the scene because of complaints about Garner by local business owners. It is virtually impossible to prove a civil-rights violation when there is no denying that police were engaged in a good-faith arrest and were put in the position of using force because a suspect resisted.
In Ferguson, Michael Brown did not merely resist arrest. Having just robbed a store, he was the aggressor in a confrontation with a police officer, who was made to fear for his life. And in Staten Island, there may be a real question about whether one police officer used excessive force under the circumstances; but there is no question that some quantum of force was appropriate in arresting a physically imposing suspect who insisted he would not be taken into custody and waved his arms to prevent the cops from cuffing him.
Federal civil-rights cases are much harder to make than state homicide cases. They are supposed to be. They were conceived as a rare federal intrusion on the sovereign police power a state exercises within its territory. When police are engaged in an arrest because a crime really has been committed, and they use force because the suspect really does resist, the claim that they were actually scheming to deprive the suspect of his civil rights is asinine. The time to worry about the deprivation of civil rights, as Messrs. Williamson, Cooke, and Goldberg point out, is when progressives enact overbearing laws that criminalize things like untaxed cigarette sales, not when police dutifully carry them out.
Eric Holder knows this as well as anyone. The bloviating he is doing today about Ferguson and Staten Island is of a piece with the bloviating he was doing two years ago about Sanford, Fla. As I observed of the Trayvon Martin killing at the time, the attorney general huffed and puffed about bringing a civil-rights case against “white Hispanic” George Zimmerman, but he was never actually going to file one. It would have been even more embarrassing than the trumped-up murder case he and Sharpton browbeat Florida into charging — the one the jury threw out in nothing flat.
Holder and his constitutional-scholar boss are not banging the civil-rights drum because they believe these are prosecutable cases. It is just a pretext for unleashing Justice Department community organizers on state and municipal police departments.
The government cannot win a standalone loser of a civil-rights prosecution by crying, “Disparate impact!” Individual cases that have been demagogued by the racial-grievance industry become high profile. Once public attention is riveted, the legal and logical flaws become obvious. When people start looking long and hard, the “institutionalized racism” canard is exposed. For guys like Sharpton, that’s bad for business.
But the Justice Department civil-rights investigations Holder is fond of announcing are not like public trials. They occur out of the public eye, where feverish Justice Department claims are not aired and scrutinized. More significant, they happen with the air of extortion created by the nearly $28 billion in funding Congress keeps giving Justice every year, no matter how many congressional investigations it obstructs, how many false statements its officials make, and how much it politicizes law enforcement. The investigations are taxpayer-funded jihads that states, cities, and towns know they lack the resources to fight off.
Here is how the game works. Holder streams in behind a tragedy that Sharpton and Obama have demagogued. He announces a civil-rights investigation. Eventually, he backs down from the threat of an indictment in the individual case, never conceding that the supporting evidence was not there, usually citing some strawman injustice that has nothing to do with the matter at hand — in Florida, for example, it was “stand your ground” gun laws that purportedly needed reforming. But, the attorney general is pleased to add, the original civil-rights probe of the non-crime has metastasized into a thoroughgoing civil-rights probe of the state or local police department’s training, practices, and . . . drumroll . . . institutional racism.
You never get to see what that investigation turns up. States and their subdivisions know they cannot afford to go toe-to-toe with the Beltway behemoth. Big cities, moreover, are governed by Democrats sympathetic to the Obama/Holder race obsessions — they’re happy to have the feds come in and hamstring police with “social justice” guidelines that would be a hard sell politically. So the Justice Department makes the locals an offer they can’t refuse: A consent decree that makes the Treaty of Versailles look like a slap on the wrist. This device is the license by which the Obama administration is remaking state law enforcement in its own image.
How do they get away with this? Well, Obamacare may be the most notorious “reform” progressives have foisted on an unsuspecting nation in modern times, but it’s not the only one. In 1994 — the last time before 2009 that Democrats controlled the White House and both congressional chambers — they rammed through a monstrosity known as the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.” A Clinton deputy attorney general named Eric Holder was among the first to exploit it.