UNITED STATES MISSION TO INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS GENEVA. SWITZERLAND
Chief of Staff to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Justice
Remarks to the U N. Committee Against Torture
May 10, 2000
Good Morning My name is William Yeomans and I am the Chief of Staff to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Justice. Thank you for the opportunity to speak for a few minutes on the U S government's domestic civil rights program and its work to fulfill our country's obligations under the Convention Against Torture (CAT).
The Department of Justice is committed to working to ensure that the United States fulfills its obligations under the CAT and other international treaties We are a member of the White House Inter-Agency Working Group on Human Rights, chaired by the National Security Council, which helps link our domestic enforcement to our international treaty obligations and
includes representation from the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and other agencies whose work is closely related to our international obligations.
Torture is prohibited by law throughout the United States No person who commits abuse while acting under color of state or federal law is immune from prosecution. When the Department of Justice is informed of credible allegations of abuse or mistreatment by police officers, prison guards, or other state actors, those matters are investigated. If the evidence supports a prosecution, those cases are tried in open court. In criminal matters, because of our federal system, state prosecutors also have the ability to bring the abuser to justice. Either way, those who commit torture in the United States are not above the law.
However, while the United States is committed to the full and effective implementation of its obligations under the Convention, within the United States there continue to be concerns warranting continuing vigilance regarding matters such as the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers and physical and sexual abuse of inmates.
The Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice bears principal responsibility for
the enforcement of federal civil rights laws, including laws designed to combat discrimination on account of race, national origin, citizenship status, religion, sex, age, or disability. We are also
the entity responsible for enforcing federal laws that protect against the use of excessive force by law enforcement, and that protect the constitutional and other federal rights of prisoners. These laws are enforceable in federal court In most instances, these federal protections complement similar guarantees pursuant to state law.
In the United States, it is a crime for one or more persons acting under color of law willfully to deprive or conspire to deprive another person of any right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. (18 U S C §§ 241, 242) "Color of law" simply means that the person doing the act is using power given to him or her by a governmental agency (local, State, or Federal). A law enforcement officer acts "under color of law" even if he or she is exceeding his or her rightful power. The types of law enforcement misconduct covered by these laws include the use of excessive force and sexual assault. If the Department determines that a law enforcement official has violated the federal excessive force statute, that official can be criminally prosecuted m federal court and sentenced to serve time in a federal prison.
At any given time, the Department is investigating several hundred allegations of criminal police misconduct around the country.
Specific examples of successful federal prosecutions of law enforcement officers include:
(1) In April 1996, a New Orleans, Louisiana police officer and two other individuals were convicted of conspiring to murder a woman who witnessed the police officer beating a young man. The day after she reported the beating incident to the police department's Internal Affairs Division, the woman was shot to death while on a street comer;
(2) A correctional officer at the Pelican Bay State Prison was recently convicted of shooting an inmate because of the officer's dislike of inmates committed to the
facility for child molestation and other sex offenses.
(3) And, recently, we obtained convictions of four New York City police officers for participating to or making false statements about the severe abuse of Abner Louima while m police custody.
It is important to bear in mind that law enforcement officers who engage m misconduct can also be prosecuted at the state level and can be subjected to administrative discipline.
The Civil Rights Division is also responsible for enforcement of 42 U S C § 14141, which was enacted in 1994. This law makes it unlawful for State or local law enforcement officers to engage to a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. The types of conduct covered by this law can include, among other things, the use of excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests, coercive sexual conduct, and unlawful stops, searches or arrests.
If we conclude that a law enforcement agency has engaged m a pattern or practice of misconduct, the Department of Justice can sue it m federal court to obtain injunctive relief, such as court orders to end the misconduct and court enforced changes to the agency's policies and procedures that resulted m the misconduct. Private individuals may seek similar relief, as well as monetary compensation, pursuant to other federal and state laws.
Examples of our work include:
(1) In April 1997, a Federal District Court entered a consent decree between the United States, the City of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police resolving the United States' allegations that the Police Bureau had engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force and had conducted improper searches and seizures. The consent decree requires the Bureau to institute comprehensive reforms m police supervision, training, discipline, and the manner in which it investigates public complaints of police misconduct; and
//////(2) Shortly thereafter, we entered into a similar consent decree with Steubenville, Ohio.////////////////////////////////
(3) We recently entered an agreement with the New Jersey State Police requiring that they stop using racial profiling in determining whom to stop for traffic violations and subsequent searches.
The Civil Rights Division is currently involved m several ongoing civil investigations of police departments regarding issues of excessive use of force. These include investigations of the Los Angeles Police Department, the New Orleans Police Department, and an investigation of the New York City Police Department undertaken in conjunction with the U S Attorneys for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York.
The Department's work to combat police misconduct rests on the principle that our nation cannot afford to tolerate officers who abuse their positions by mistreating citizens, or who bring their own racial bias to the job of policing .No person should be subject to unreasonable force,
and no person should be targeted by law enforcement based on the color of his or her skin.
The Civil Rights Division also works to combat systemic abuse and misconduct in our nation's prisons and jails. Since the enactment of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) in 1980, the Civil Rights Division has investigated more than 300 facilities in 39 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and the Virgin Islands. As a result of the Department's CRIPA efforts, tens of thousands of institutionalized persons who were living in dire, often life-threatening, conditions now receive adequate care and services.
The Division's work focuses on protection from abuse and harm, provision of adequate medical and mental health services, and proper sanitary and fire-safety conditions. For example, in 1997 we entered into consent decrees with institutions in Wisconsin and Tennessee regarding those facilities' provision of proper medical treatment, use of restraints, and use of psychotropic medications on the mentally retarded. In that same year, the Division settled a lawsuit against the Montana State Prison with an agreement that protects vulnerable inmates from predatory inmates. In recent years, the Division's work has also focused on problems such as abuse and neglect in nursing homes and juvenile facilities, sexual victimization of women prisoners, inadequate education in facilities serving children and adolescents, and the unmet mental health needs of inmates and pre-trial detainees.
To date, the Division has been successful in resolving the vast majority of CRIPA investigations that have uncovered unlawful conditions by obtaining voluntary correction or a
judicially enforceable settlement designed to improve conditions. If state or local officials fail to correct the deficiencies or to agree to an appropriate settlement, CRIPA authorizes the Attorney General to file suit in federal court.
I would like to describe briefly what the Justice Department is doing to comply with Article 3 of the CAT, which requires member states not to "expel, return (`refouler') or extradite" a person to another state where he or she would be tortured. In 1998, President Clinton signed into law a statute that required the promulgation of regulations to implement U S obligations under Article 3. On February 19, 1999, the Department of Justice published an interim rule to establish procedures for an alien to raise a claim to protection from removal to a country where he or she fears torture. These regulations provide that an immigration judge will consider a claim to protection under the CAT, along with any other applications, during removal proceedings. The Department's expectation is that the various safeguards that are part of this new interim rule will ensure fair and accurate decisions.
The Department of Justice remains committed to prosecuting law enforcement officers for excessive use of force and other misconduct, protecting the constitutional rights of prisoners, and ensuring that police departments across the country refrain from engaging in patterns of misconduct. We have more work to do, but we are confident that we can continue to make progress.