As a U.S. Attorney, Eric Holder Did Not Seem to Worry Much About Fishy Police Shootings (or Excessively Harsh Sentences)


Georgetown University

Writing in USA Today, James Bovard warns anyone expecting Attorney General Eric Holder to do the right thing in Ferguson, Missouri, that he was less than diligent when it came to investigating police shootings as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Drawing on a Pulitzer-winning 1998 exposé by The Washington Post, Bovard notes how bad the situation in D.C. was:

The number of killings by D.C. police doubled between 1988 and 1995, the year 16 civilians died due to police gunfire. D.C. police shot and killed people at a higher rate than any other major city police department….

Even when police review boards ruled that shootings were unjustified or found contradictions in officers' testimony, police were not prosecuted. In one case, a police officer shot a suspect four times in the back when he was unarmed and lying on the ground….

Some of the most abusive cases involved police shooting into cars—a practice which is severely discouraged because of the high risk of collateral damage…."More than 50 officers over five years had shot at unarmed drivers in cars," the Post noted, and D.C. police were more than 20 times as likely to shoot at cars than were New York City police. Reports about some of the shootings were tainted by police perjury.

Shortly after Holder became U.S. attorney, a local judge slammed the D.C. government for its "deliberate indifference" to police brutality complaints….

Even assistant D.C. police chief Terrance Gainer admitted: "We shoot too often, and we shoot too much when we do shoot."

Yet Holder, who served as U.S. attorney from 1993 to 1997, "remained asleep at the switch," Bovard writes. That impression is reinforced by Holder's comments to the Post in 1999:

The Post reported that "Holder said he did not detect a pattern of problematic police shootings and could not recall the specifics of cases he personally reviewed." Holder declared: "I can't honestly say I saw anything that was excessive."…

"I do kind of remember more than a few [shootings] in cars. I don't know if that's typical of what you find in police shootings outside D.C."

Holder's lackadaisical attitude is indeed troubling. "He is a friend of law enforcement," a friend of Holder's recently told The New York Times. Judging from the record summarized by Bovard, Holder was a bit too chummy with law enforcement back in the 1990s. Then again, his statements and actions in connection with the police shooting of Michael Brown suggest the issue is more important to him now than it was two decades ago.

Holder's views on crime and punishment also seem to have evolved. When he was a federal prosecutor, he sounded like a federal prosecutor, betraying no qualms about the war on drugs or excessively harsh criminal penalties. In 1996, as Bovard mentions, Holder urged the D.C. Council to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. That same year, he told the Post "we have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important," referring specifically to marijuana possession. "If you take these so-called minor crimes seriously and treat them fully, it has a ripple effect."

In 1997 Holder criticized jury nullification in cases involving nonviolent drug offenses: "While an isolated drug sale might be viewed as nonviolent, Holder said, the crack cocaine trade as a whole 'has had a devastating impact on the city, largely because of the violence associated with it.'" Never mind that the violence is an entirely predictable side effect of prohibition.

As attorney general, by contrast, Holder has advocated lighter punishment for crack offenses and condemned mandatory minimums as unnecessary and unjust. Too little, too late? Better late than never? You decide.