Historic echoes in Washington's civil rights response

Willie Grace | 12/4/2014, 10:16 p.m. | Updated on 12/4/2014, 10:16 p.m.
The call for a federal response echoes key moments during the civil rights movement when it became clear that local ...
In a statement released after the grand jury's decision in the Garner case was announced, Lynch said the federal investigation will be "fair and through, and it will be conducted as expeditiously as possible."

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The national fury over police brutality is thrusting the federal government into a role that dates back decades: ensuring the rights of African-Americans are protected in a nation with a long history of racial inequality.

After local grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, declined to charge white officers who killed unarmed African-Americans with a crime, attention is shifting to Washington.

The call for a federal response echoes key moments during the civil rights movement when it became clear that local prosecutors and state authorities would not act. After all, it took the federal government to convict seven men on conspiracy charges for the 1964 killing of civil rights activists James Chaney, who was black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were white.

Now, the Justice Department is conducting two civil rights investigations of police in Ferguson after the killing 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of an officer. Attorney General Eric Holder is also formally launching a civil rights investigation into 43-year-old Eric Garner's death in Staten Island.

The outrage that followed the grand jury decision in both cases highlights the deep mistrust between many in the black community and the police.

"Local governments have historically failed to provide justice, especially for African American communities," said Barbara R. Arnwine, the president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, an organization formed in 1963 at the request of President John. F. Kennedy to help combat racial discrimination. "That's why people are able to breathe a sigh of relief, because they know there is a back door to hold these local governments accountable."

Of course, the federal government has also been involved in more recent cases.

"You don't have to go all the way back to the Civil Rights Movement to find an analogue," said Sherrilyn Ifill, a professor at University of Maryland School of Law and president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense fund, pointing to the Rodney King case. "On the one hand, it's unfortunate. On the other hand, it's a really great thing that we have federal civil rights statutes."

In 1992, a jury in Simi Valley, California, acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers in the beating of Rodney King, but two of them were later convicted of violating his civil rights in a federal trial and served 32 months in prison. After Anthony Baez died by asphyxiation during an altercation with police in Bronx, New York, in 1994, the arresting officer, Francis Livoti, was acquitted on state charges, but later convicted in federal court of violating Baez's civil rights.

As recently as April, the Justice Department found that the police department in Albuquerque, New Mexico, engaged in "a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force" that violated people's civil rights. And on Thursday, Holder announced that a civil rights investigation had found that the Cleveland police department also engaged in unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.