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Federal Oversight of Local Police in the U.S.


Demonstrators jump on a damaged Baltimore police department vehicle during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland, April 27, 2015.

Federal authorities are investigating the death of a Baltimore man who died under mysterious circumstances after being arrested April 13.

Federal authorities are investigating the death of a Baltimore man who died under mysterious circumstances after being arrested April 13. It was the latest in a series of recent incidents raising questions about the use of deadly force by police in America, particularly against blacks and other racial minorities.

Police say Freddie Gray was acting suspiciously in a neighborhood known for criminal drug activity. He struggled with officers as he was handcuffed and placed roughly in a police van. On route to jail, he was further restrained with leg shackles. In pain and having trouble breathing, he was sent to a local hospital where he died days later, the result of a serious spinal injury.

As in previous civilian deaths in police incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, N.Y., and elsewhere, protestors have taken to the streets. Tensions are running high and authorities are asking for calm as they try to determine what happened.

Under the American system of government, police authority is granted to the states, and by delegation to towns and cities. Even when police kill someone in the line of duty, it’s up to local prosecutors to decide whether to file charges. Police agencies themselves conduct so-called internal reviews, but those largely probe whether correct police procedures were followed. And in some cases prosecutors use grand juries, independent panels that hear testimony and review evidence, to determine if an officer should stand trial for his or her actions.

Ours is a system of government checks and balances, however, and the federal government also may get involved, to ensure that no rights granted under our Constitution have been violated. Prosecutors can bring charges if an officer is seen to have willfully deprived a victim like Freddie Gray of his civil rights by using more force than the law allows.

That’s a challenging standard in heated confrontations such as an arrest. Police must make snap judgments to defend themselves and protect the safety of others on the scene. Federal review is an important check on local law enforcement, however, because local prosecutors aren’t really independent when it comes to law enforcement. They work closely with police every day.

U.S. Justice Department investigations such as the one going on now in the death of Freddie Gray are important to answer public demands that justice be done.

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