The FBI and the Justice Department may not know how to catch or even identify terrorists, but they sure can play racial politics. The Justice Department continues to agonize over whether the gunning down of an employee and passenger by a Muslim man at an LAX El Al Israel Airlines counter on Independence Day constitutes terrorism. Yet the department decided instantaneously that a highly publicized but (increasingly) ambiguous incident of excessive police force in Inglewood, California—just next door to site of the El Al shooting—was a likely civil rights violation requiring federal intervention. Doesn’t the U.S. government have better things to do?

Attorney General John Ashcroft declared Wednesday that the Inglewood altercation, in which a local officer was caught on videotape slamming a cuffed suspect against a car hood and punching him once in the face, raised "clear" and "troubl[ing]" questions about Inglewood’s police force. Ashcroft promptly dispatched the assistant attorney general for civil rights to the crime-ridden city to investigate the matter. Two problems: first, scores of local investigators already are crawling all over the case with zero indication that they’re failing to do their jobs; second, new facts are emerging each day that make prejudging the incident more and more unwise.

As soon as the Inglewood tape hit the airwaves on Monday, the Justice Department asked the Civil Rights Unit of the FBI to jump on the story. No matter that every relevant local policy and prosecutorial agency in Southern California—the Inglewood Police Department, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, the local district attorney’s office—not to mention every reporter within a thousand miles, as well as an army of private attorneys, were already involved. Worse, the FBI is just the tip of the federal iceberg: the Criminal Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California have also arrived on the scene. Sending Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd is a superfluity on top of abundant redundancies.

The mandate for the “Criminal” Section of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is to “prosecute cases of national significance which either cannot be, or are not, sufficiently addressed by state or local authorities.” Leaving aside whether 24-year-old officer Jeremy Morse’s enraged punch of the cuffed Donovan Jackson, 16, is a case of “national significance,” it’s absurd to suggest that local authorities are ignoring the matter. Inglewood’s mayor has already pronounced the officer guilty, witnesses are testifying before the grand jury, and investigators are pursuing more leads every day. But even if there were any hint of local intransigence, the federal government should still let the local investigation run its course before stepping in. The only reason for mobilizing the federal government’s firepower now, presumably, is to demonstrate Attorney General Ashcroft’s “racial sensitivity” at a time when the press is attacking the government’s war on terror for showing insufficient solicitude to civil rights and the feelings of Arab-Americans.

Furthermore, Ashcroft should know better than to prejudge a complex case before all the facts are out. Certainly, anyone who’s seen the Inglewood tape—that includes anyone who’s watched the television, however briefly, over the last week—will be sickened by what appears to be a gratuitous act of violence against an already restrained citizen. It may well be that none of the facts that are still emerging—Officer Morse’s claim, for example, that Jackson had grabbed his testicles just before Morse hit him—justifies, or even mitigates, the officer’s attack against the boy. But our system of justice still honors the idea of innocence before proof of guilt, doesn’t it? Most troubling about Ashcroft’s premature entry into the case is the implication that the incident was about race. The fact is, anyone who assaults officers, as Jackson is reputed to have done before being cuffed, risks provoking angry retaliation. Race has nothing to do with it.

Attorney General Ashcroft has accumulated an unfortunate history of racial grandstanding following highly publicized police incidents. After a Cincinnati officer fatally shot a fleeing teen with outstanding warrants in April 2001, sparking three days of racial violence, Ashcroft paternalistically announced that his department would help Cincinnati “solve its problems.” There was little chance that Ashcroft was referring to Cincinnati’s crime, drug, illegitimacy, and astronomical dropout problems. No, the implication was that Cincinnati had a race and police “problem” that only the federal government could remedy.

The attorney general should put his bruising confirmation battle, during which racial agitators tried to torpedo his nomination, behind him. The country’s inner-city residents need the police far more than they need federal oversight of the police. The federal government has more important matters to take care of—such as protecting the country from the next terrorist assault.


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