Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Hundreds of Secret, Illegal Arrests: NYT editorial
For a shocking glimpse of what’s been happening in the name of criminal justice in America, look no further than a Justice Department report last week on police behavior in Louisiana. Officers there have routinely arrested hundreds of citizens annually without probable cause, strip-searching them and denying them contact with their family and lawyers for days — all in an unconstitutional attempt to force cooperation with detectives who finally admitted they were operating on a mere “hunch” or “feeling.”
This wholesale violation of the Constitution’s protection against unlawful search and seizure by the police in Evangeline Parish, including in its largest city, Ville Platte, was standard procedure for putting pressure on citizens who the police thought might have information about crimes, according to the findings of a 20-month federal investigation. The report described as “staggering” the number of people who were “commonly detained for 72 hours or more” with no opportunity to contest their arrest, in what the police euphemistically termed “investigative holds.”
The sheriff’s office in Evangeline, with a population of 33,578, initiated over 200 such arrest-and-grilling sessions between 2012 and 2014. In Ville Platte, which has 7,303 residents, the local police department used the practice more than 700 times during the same years. The residents faced demands for information, the report said, “under threat of continued wrongful incarceration,” resulting in what may have been false confessions and improper convictions.
“Literally anyone in Evangeline Parish or Ville Platte could be arrested and placed ‘on hold’ at any time,” the report found, noting the large African-American populations in Ville Platte (64 percent) and Evangeline (29 percent over all). The police ordered one woman to bring her young children with her to headquarters. They questioned her 5-year-old about the mother before releasing the children. The mother slept on the floor of a holding cell for three days before charges, later dropped, were even brought.
While the nation has been exposed in recent years to police abuses involving the fatal shooting of citizens, particularly black Americans, the new report presents something no less insidious: dragnet interrogations routinely conducted below the radar as a supposed tool of criminal justice. The practice, which finally prompted local complaints to the federal government, was found to be habitual in the parish for as long as anyone could remember.
Reforms have since begun, a tribute to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section, which carried out the investigation and demanded wholesale changes. This bureau has done notable work during the Obama administration, investigating 25 law enforcement agencies and requiring and overseeing major reforms. To fully secure national justice, its work must continue. One big question in Washington now is whether President-elect Donald Trump and his choice for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, might ever commit themselves to this cause.