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Feds Should Take a Hard Look at California Highway Patrol Beating Case

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The instant that the video went viral that showed a California Highway Patrol officer pounding a hapless woman (later identified as Marlene Pinnock) into the pavement on the side of a Los Angeles freeway on July 1, the cry went up for a federal probe and possible prosecution of the officer. In the weeks since, the cry should become even louder in light of two new and disturbing revelations about the beating. One is the allegation made by Pinnock in a federal lawsuit against the CHP that she had prior contact with the officer and that she felt harassed and threatened by him.

The other revelation is an investigative report done by an NBC TV outlet in Northern California that found that two CHP officers were accused of beating a trucker in September, 2011, after a traffic stop. The report was complete with pictures of the battered trucker. But more telling was the apparent inaction of CHP officials against the officers. CHP officials disputed the accusations. A federal lawsuit has been filed in that case against the CHP.

The CHP has publicly promised a swift and thorough investigation into the Pinnock beating. But the Pinnock contention of prior harassment and the beating of a trucker and no record of action against the officers at best again raise serious questions about the outcome of investigations that law enforcement agencies make of themselves when officers are charged with abuse and misconduct. Still the call for a federal probe to insure their investigations are indeed fair and impartial brings its own set of problems. Despite the wave of highly questionable police shootings of mostly young blacks and Latinos the past few years, the Justice Department has done almost nothing to nail the cops that overuse deadly force. A decade ago, a report on police misconduct by Human Rights Watch, an international public watchdog group, noted that federal prosecutors brought excessive force charges against police officers in less than one percent of the cases investigated by the FBI involving allegations of police abuse. In the decade since the number of federal prosecutions of bad cops on misconduct and excessive force charges has registered barely a blip on the charts.

The see-no-evil policy of the feds toward police violence has remained constant in the past decade despite the rash of questionable police shootings and beatings of unarmed blacks and Hispanics, the routine acquittal of the handful of officers charged in their killings, and the less than vigorous prosecution by District Attorney's of bad cops. It's no surprise then that the Justice Department says it gets thousands of complaints yearly; complaints that in more than a few of the cases justify action.

The Justice Department has long had on the books a strong arsenal of civil rights statutes to prosecute abusive police officers. In almost all cases, it has taken major press attention, large scale protests, and even a major riot, such as the L.A. riots in 1992 following the King verdict, before it used its legal weapons. Federal prosecutors say they can't nail more abusive cops because they are hamstrung by the lack of funds and staff, victims who aren't perceived as criminals, credible witnesses, and the public's inclination to always believe police testimony.

Federal prosecutors also claim they are pinned in by the almost impossible requirement that they prove an officer had the specific intent to kill or injure a victim in order to get a conviction. These are tough obstacles to overcome and since the Justice Department is in the business of winning cases many prosecutors are more than happy to take a hands-off attitude toward police misconduct cases.

Yet this is no excuse for federal prosecutors not to at least make the effort to prosecute more officers when there is substantial evidence that they used excessive force. This is the legally and morally right thing to do. And it sends a powerful message to law enforcement agencies that the federal government will go after lawbreakers no matter whether they wear a mask, or a badge.

Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark understood the importance of prosecuting violence-prone cops even when there is virtually no chance of getting a conviction against them. He felt this acted as a stabilizing force to spur police and city officials to take stronger action to halt the use of excessive force in their departments. Clark was right. Yet while federal officials from time to time pay lip service to doing something about racial profiling they are mute about the need for more aggressive federal prosecutions to crack down on police violence.

Attorney General Eric Holder has spoken out from time to time against police violence and has signed on to several high profile consent decrees in which the feds monitor the policies, procedures and conduct of police agencies on the use of excessive force. This is cause for hope that the feds will take a more aggressive role in police abuse cases. The CHP beating case should be one of them.

An added note: The Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable filed a federal civil rights violation complaint with the Justice Department on Tuesday, July 29 in the CHP beating case.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson