Why Federal Civil Rights Investigations Matter

Why Federal Civil Rights Investigations Matter December 8, 2014

The Department of Justice is investigating the killing of Eric Garner by a NYPD officer using an illegal chokehold, leaving open the possibility of federal civil rights charges (there’s also an investigation into the Michael Brown shooting, but that seems a lot less likely to result in federal charges). Damon Root notes that this is exactly what the federal civil rights laws were intended for:

Attorney General Holder is entirely correct to launch this investigation. The video evidence in the case plainly shows a white police officer using excessive and ultimately lethal force against an unarmed, nonthreatening black suspect. The grand jury’s failure to indict is an embarrassment to the rule of law and a striking miscarriage of justice. In effect, a black man who posed zero risk to either the police or to the public was nonetheless handed a death sentence by the NYPD for the alleged petty crime of selling untaxed loose cigarettes. There’s no excuse for Officer Pantaleo’s shameful treatment of Eric Garner.

Furthermore, Holder’s decision to launch a federal inquiry is fully consistent with the original purposes of federal civil rights legislation, which dates back to the Civil Rights Act of 1866. That law was passed by the Republican-led 39th Congress in the wake of the Civil War in response to the former Confederate states’ attempts to harass and oppress the recently freed slaves by stripping them of their newfound liberty and property, denying them the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, and failing–or refusing–to provide them equal treatment under the law.

In other words, the whole point of federal civil rights law is to provide a legal check against state-sanctioned injustice, such as the egregious police misconduct that killed Eric Garner.

I agree. This is also what happened in the Rodney King case, where the police officers who savagely beat him were acquitted on state charges but found guilty of federal civil rights violations.

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