Lead Story West Edition

U.S. attorney announces new civil rights division

LOS ANGELES — U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker has announced the formation of a new civil rights section within the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in California’s Central District. It will focus on enforcing federal civil rights laws in civil, rather than criminal, disputes.

Thom Mrozek, a Department of Justice spokesman, said the investigation into the mistreatment of inmates in the L.A. County Jail system highlighted the need for the type of division already present in the criminal department.

“There are so many cases we run into where civil rights issues come up,” Mrozek said. “With a new unit, we can respond to these issues locally rather than relying on the Justice Department to take the lead.”

Mrozek said situations involving discrimination with housing and voting are examples of the types of cases the new department would handle. It would also look into cases of police misconduct, but within the procedures of the department rather than investigating a particular incident. The recent case of the systemic abuse of inmates that led to Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s recent conviction serves as an example.

“My office is committed to protecting the civil rights of every single resident in our district,” Decker said in a statement. The district covers the counties of Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Boasting a population of more than 19 million people, it is the largest federal court district in the nation.

“The formation of the civil rights section will increase our capacity to address civil rights complaints and enhance our community engagement on these issues,” Decker said. “Protecting these rights, and especially those of our most vulnerable residents, is one of my top priorities.”

Local civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who founded the Advancement Project, a nonprofit organization that focuses on racial justice issues, said she views the development as positive, but expresses concern that the unit won’t have the resources to affect change.

She said federal agencies have demonstrated “a manifest inability to deal with police-related issues,” and said allegations of inmate abuse in the L.A. jails circulated for decades before the Justice Department responded adequately.

But doubts aside, she said, “we need a unit that’s very fluent in the dynamics of L.A. County. The area has a large population of people such as immigrants and the homeless who are handled with impunity.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joanna Hull was appointed to head up the new division. She started at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2010, where she began working for the Civil Rights Unit in the Civil Division, a precursor to the civil rights section.

She has worked on civil rights cases in a number of areas, such as advocating for disability rights and military service members’ rights. She will return to Los Angeles in mid-July after serving for a year as the national civil rights coordinator at the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. There, she acted as a subject-matter expert on civil rights and helped train federal prosecutors nationwide.