SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ attorney general asked Congress in a letter Thursday to grant his office the power to investigate “practices of unconstitutional policing.”
After Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, federal lawmakers established the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It allowed the Department of Justice to investigate alleged police wrongdoings.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Y. Raoul and 17 other attorneys general who signed on to the letter requested that authority as well due to the federal government’s “refusal to confront the problem of police misconduct.”
“The violent death of George Floyd at the hands of police has rightfully shocked and outraged a nation,” Raoul said in a statement. “But the truth is that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are two of the latest in a long line of African Americans who have lost their lives at the hands of police using excessive force.”
Floyd, an unarmed black man, died May 25 in Minneapolis after being pinned to the ground for nearly nine minutes with a white police officer’s knee on his neck.
The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice launched 69 investigations between 1994, when the act took effect, and 2017, according to its website. Those inquiries resulted in 40 court orders for police departments to make changes.
But in a 2018 memo, former U.S. attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote state and local governments have the “responsibility” to hold their law enforcement departments accountable, not the federal government. The Department of Justice has not opened any such investigations since.
That decision “has left local communities without critical protections for their civil rights,” the state attorneys general wrote. Allowing their offices to undertake such analyses as well as to access statistics about police departments’ use of excessive force would allow “much more” to be done to combat an issue thousands of Americans are protesting across the country.
“One thing is certain: If US DOJ continues to abdicate its responsibility to pursue police reform, someone has to take action. We stand ready to do so,” the attorneys wrote. “…Our country cannot move ahead — indeed our country will not heal — unless we ensure constitutional policing throughout our nation and accountability for police officers who fail to follow our most fundamental law.”
They noted police officers take a “tremendous risk” daily to protect citizens, but added communities will continue to treat them with “mistrust” if those who break the law are not held accountable.
The letter was also signed by attorneys general from California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.