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Baltimore, SF to review police practices for civil rights violations

Justice Department to probe excessive police force in Baltimore; SF will review 3,000 arrests after racist police texts

Separate investigations have been launched into alleged bias at police departments in two major U.S. cities, amid allegations of excessive force and arrests that may have been guided by racism and homophobia.

The probes into the Baltimore and San Francisco police come as a series of fatal police confrontations across the country have put law enforcement agencies under scrutiny over the use of lethal force, especially against minorities, the poor and the mentally ill.

The Justice Department will investigate the Baltimore police force to identify law enforcement practices that are unconstitutional and violate civil rights, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Friday — just one day after the San Francisco district attorney's office announced its probe into systemic bias at the west coast city's police department.

Lynch visited the city and met with city and community leaders earlier this week. It follows unrest related to the death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured in police custody. Her announcement fulfills a request from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who initially appeared determined to fix the city's problems on her own, but then requested a Justice Department investigation.

Soured relations between the police and the communities they serve is "one of the most challenging issues of our time," Lynch said in announcing the investigation, adding that there has been "a serious erosion of public trust."

The investigation, similar to ones undertaken in cities across the country such as Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio, will look for trends of unconstitutional policing practices, such as patterns in the use of deadly force or improper stops and searches.

Federal authorities already were conducting a second, separate investigation into the death of Gray, a black man who died last month after his spine was nearly severed while in police custody. The death set off chaos in the city, and Baltimore's top prosecutor has brought charges against six police officers.

"Ultimately, this process is meant to ensure that officers are being provided with the tools they need — including training, policy guidance and equipment — to be more effective, to partner with civilians and to strengthen public safety," Lynch said.

The Justice Department has undertaken several dozen similar investigations since being granted the authority do so by Congress in 1994. In some cases, such as in Ferguson, the federal government initiated the process on its own; in others, including Albuquerque's, city officials made the request.

Baltimore City Council President Jack Young called the decision "a watershed moment" for the city.

On the other side of the country, San Francisco city officials announced Thursday that the district attorney’s office will review the integrity of 3,000 arrests involving more than a dozen police officers who engaged in racist and homophobic text messages. 

District Attorney George Gascon said he was adding three former judges to a task force to determine whether bias led to thousands of arrests by 14 San Francisco police officers that may have resulted in wrongful convictions.

In San Francisco, if one person was wrongly imprisoned because of bias by the officers, "that's one too many," Gascon said.

Gascon's office has identified 3,000 arrests going back several years that involved officers who engaged in the texts. By the end of the year, the judicial panel is expected to review all the arrests and produce a report on whether bias played a role in any resulting prosecution or conviction, Gascon said.

The texts included slurs against blacks, Mexicans, Filipinos and gays, and feature officers and civilians repeatedly using the phrase "white power."

In one text message, former San Francisco Police Sgt. Ian Furminger wrote: "Cross burning lowers blood pressure!" according to court documents.

The court papers show Furminger also bragged in texts that a relative was a slave auctioneer, joked about the Ku Klux Klan and insulted Latinos. Others, among the 14 officers who received the messages on their phones, texted such responses as "White Power" and wrote homophobic messages.

The president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association did not return calls seeking comment.

The texts were discovered by federal authorities in a probe of Furminger, who was recently convicted of corruption. The names of the other officers under investigation have not been released.

"If we want the public to trust law enforcement we need a culture of justice, transparency and accountability — not bias, secrecy and impunity," Gascon said. "The actions of a few have undermined the public's faith in the police officers."

To ensure their independence, the judges are from outside San Francisco and will not be paid. They are expected to complete their investigation by the end of the year.

Last month Police Chief Greg Suhr said he had asked a police oversight committee to approve firing seven officers. Six others face disciplinary actions that include reassignment to positions that don't have contact with the public. Another officer tied to the investigation has resigned.

The review goes back a decade and looks at cases in which the officers wrote a report, submitted evidence or testified in court.

Al Jazeera and wire services



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