When the feds wade into racially charged police shooting cases, and when they don’t

ST. PAUL -- For some time, protesters of the Philando Castile police shooting -- along with Gov. Mark Dayton -- have been calling for a federal investigation into the case.

ST. PAUL -- For some time, protesters of the Philando Castile police shooting - along with Gov. Mark Dayton - have been calling for a federal investigation into the case.

But people often don’t realize what that means - particularly when it comes to the laws the feds have to use, and the standards they have to meet.

So here is a rundown of what federal authorities can and can’t do - and what they have done in recent high-profile cases potentially involving race.



In pretty much every case where the federal government investigates a death like Castile’s, it uses the FBI to look into possible violations of one of two federal laws, commonly know as the “color of law” statute and the “pattern and practice” statute.


The “color of law” statute is against a single officer, or however many were involved in a shooting - rather than an entire police department. It’s a criminal statute, with penalties up to life in prison, for those who deprive someone of their civil rights - including giving someone different “punishments, pains, or penalties” - because of that person’s race.

The “pattern or practice” statute, however, is an investigation into an entire police department, rather than just an officer or two. Created in the wake of the 1991 Rodney King case in Los Angeles, it was designed to address a department’s overall track record and has been used twice as often under the first five years of President Barack Obama’s administration than the previous five under President George W. Bush - 23 times to date.

While a civil matter, rather than a criminal one, in actuality it’s a much, much bigger deal - demanding federal court oversight and substantial departmental reforms. The end result that the feds push for is called a “consent decree,” where the Justice Department and the city agree on how to make fixes, and changes are monitored by a federal judge, or rather, someone appointed by them.



Those “color of law” cases are relatively hard to prosecute, legal experts note. The feds have to prove that an officer knew what he was doing was wrong - but “willfully” did it anyway.

“Willfully” is a very tough legal measure - going beyond “reckless” or “negligent” standards that appear in state law.

Also - unless there is a blatant conflict of interest, the feds will typically wait to see how state investigations play out. A big reason for this: There are a lot more state laws to prosecute under than federal ones, many of which have a much lower legal standard than “willful.”


Is currently not under a federal investigation. It is being investigated by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has yet to decide whether he will rely on a grand jury to decide on charges or make the decision himself.

On July 6, 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop on Larpenteur Avenue. His fiancee, Diamond Reynolds, live streamed the immediate aftermath on Facebook.

Along with Gov. Dayton, Rep. Betty McCollum, Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Keith Ellison have also called for a federal investigation.


On July 7, the feds put out a statement relating to the case which said, in full:

“The Department of Justice will continue to monitor the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigation into the death of Philando Castile and stands ready to provide assistance to the Bureau as needed. The Department is prepared, as necessary, to conduct further investigation and consider this matter under applicable federal law.”


What exactly triggers a federal investigation is rarely stated. Local protesters, and at times local government officials, often call for them - but DOJ officials often deny this is a factor in decision-making.

Here’s a rundown of recent cases that protesters often put into the same category as the Castile case:

--MICHAEL BROWN (Shot by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer on Aug. 9, 2014): The Department of Justice conducted two separate investigations into the shooting, though many observers didn’t realize this because their findings were released the same day. The first, a “color of law” case against the individual officer involved, resulted in no charges. The second - a “pattern or practice” case against the entire Ferguson police department - resulted in a scathing report, and a negotiated “consent decree,” or agreement by the department to change its ways.

Investigation announced: August 11, two days after shooting.

Notable events: The local FBI office denied the investigation was prompted by high-profile protests on the shooting instead saying it was “something we would routinely do.”

-- ERIC GARNER (Died from what the medical examiner called a choke hold placed by a New York City police officer on July 17, 2014): The feds are conducting a “color of law” investigation into the officer involved, but not an investigation into the police department as a whole. The investigation remains ongoing.

Investigation announced: Like the Castile case, the DOJ initially said it was “closely monitoring” local investigations. But on Dec. 3, 2014, they announced they would conduct their own independent investigation.

Notable events: The announcement came the same day a grand jury decided not to indict the main officer involved.

-- JAMAR CLARK (Shot by a Minneapolis police officer on Nov. 15, 2015): The DOJ conducted a civil rights investigation into the officers involved in the shooting, which resulted in no charges. An investigation into the department as a whole was not conducted.

Investigation announced: Two days after the shooting.

Notable events: Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges asked for a federal investigation into the incident that same day.

l-- LAQUAN MCDONALD (Shot by a Chicago police officer on Oct. 20, 2014): The DOJ has confirmed they are conducting an investigation into the entire Chicago police department under the “pattern or practice” statute. The case remains ongoing.

Investigation announced: April 13, 2015, though it was clear the investigation had been going on for some time.

Notable events: The announcement came two weeks after police released a video of McDonald being shot, prompting large protests.

--ALTON STERLING (shot by Baton Rouge police on July 5, 2016): The DOJ is conducting a civil rights investigation into the officers involved but is not conducting an investigation into the department.

Investigation announced: July 6

Notable events: East Baton Rouge district attorney Hillar Moore recused himself from the case, citing a “personal relationship” with the parents of one of the officers, thus prompting the federal investigation.

Related Topics: CRIME
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