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Michigan AG asks Congress for more power to investigate, get data about alleged police misconduct

Fred Moon @fwed for Unsplash

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is joining 17 other state AGs in asking Congress to expand federal law to give them "clear statutory authority to investigate patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing,” Nessel’s office said Thursday. 

“We therefore ask Congress to give us explicit authority under federal law to conduct

pattern-or-practice investigations, to obtain data regarding excessive uses of force by law enforcement officers to support those investigations, and to bring appropriate enforcement actions in federal court to ensure constitutional policing in our states, particularly when the federal government is unwilling or unable to act,” the attorneys general said in aletter dated June 4.

“Pattern-or-practice investigations” refers to a part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was passed in the wake of the Rodney King beatings. It allows the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of systemic misconduct by police, as well as the role of local governments and departments as a whole, as opposed to complaints about individual officers. 

“Once again, our nation has been called to reckon with police brutality against black people in this country and the systemic failures that cause and allow this misconduct to perpetuate,” the letter states. “Many members of the public have no trust in the police, with tensions visible in the streets across this nation. Urgent action is necessary at all levels of government to remedy the injustice of police misconduct.”

The attorneys general also accuse the Trump administration of essentially abandoning its duty to enforce the law. Between the law’s passage in 1994 through January 27, the U.S. Dept. of Justice “initiated 69 “pattern-or-practice” investigations—resulting in 40 court-enforceable consent decrees,” the letter says. 

“Since 2017, U.S. DOJ has largely curtailed the ability of federal law enforcement to use court-enforced agreements to reform local police departments accused of abuses, taking the position that responsibility to oversee local law enforcement belonged to states and localities. In a memorandum to U.S. DOJ officials, former Attorney General Sessions wrote that ‘local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.’” 

Now, the AGs are asking Congress to allow them to enforce that federal law themselves, by authorizing them to conduct “pattern-or-practice” investigations through “the use of pre-suit investigative subpoenas” and “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.”

“This authority... would provide State Attorneys General with access under federal law to regular and uniform annual data on those local police departments and sheriff’s offices that have higher-than-typical rates of excessive force complaints, which can help identify at-risk law enforcement agencies before—rather than after—another devastating incident occurs,” the letter states. 


Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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