President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to become the attorney general of the U.S. has set off a growing number of protests by critics challenging Sessions’ record in defense of civil rights.
Questions about Sessions — an outspoken opponent of more liberal immigration policies who has been accused of making racially insensitive remarks in the past, for instance — have sparked concerns about how a Department of Justice under his watch will safeguard the rights of various groups which have seen expanded protections under Obama administration policies.
But there’s no need to worry, according to the top ranking Justice Department official in Alabama. Defending civil rights will continue no matter who runs the D.O.J., said U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance. That’s especially true, she said, when talking about criminal cases arising from the violation of someone’s civil rights.
“I think it’s really important to say that this is not political work,” Vance said in an interview toward the end of December. “These are core criminal statutes and they are enforced whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge…. We’re not a political agency. We are the only cabinet-level agency whose name is a moral virtue — justice.”
The Justice Department consists of “good, career people,” she said. “These are people with integrity and understanding in the importance of this work and I have every expectation that that continues under the next administration.”
Vance herself is a veteran of several presidential administrations and both major political parties. She went to work as an assistant U.S. attorney in 1991 under President George H.W. Bush, and remained in the USAO in various roles through the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before being appointed to head the office in the Northern District of Alabama under the Obama administration.
Generally, U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president for four-year terms, subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. A sitting U.S. attorney can remain in office until a successor is appointed, but is subject to being removed from office by the president.
No decision has been made about Vance’s future with the U.S.A.O., but as the Obama administration comes to a close, she recounted her office’s record with civil rights, which mirrors the administration’s approach to widening the tent beyond just traditional civil rights beneficiaries.
Vance’s office has pursued cases in both criminal and civil court with the view that the Justice Department should use civil rights to protect the rights of voters, immigrants, religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, veterans, prisoners, and victims of police misconduct among others. That approach represents a significant change.
“When I first came into the office, there were a number of prosecutors who did civil rights cases on the criminal side. I was one of them,” Vance said. “[We] handled some church burning cases. We all handled what we would call hate crimes — cross burnings, defacement of churches — but our focus was very much on what we always call traditional civil rights.
“It’s been amazing to me how expanded the definition of civil rights is… That, I think, is one of the most important developments in civil rights work through this administration… We’ve really broadened that work so that we’re trying to meet the needs of everyone in the community so that everyone has their civil rights guaranteed and fully protected.”
From the CREU to the division
On a local level, Vance established a division dedicated to civil rights work last year. She said the development of that office arose from D.O.J. priorities and the needs of north Alabama.
“My goal as U.S. attorney — I didn’t walk in the door thinking, ‘I want to do health care fraud cases or I want to do civil rights cases,’” Vance said. “I wanted to build a very competent core of prosecutors with a stellar reputation for integrity and a commitment to serving the community. My theory was that Washington would set priorities, which they did and which we adopted as the priorities in our office. But also, that as we assessed what was going on in the community, we would see what the most significant situations and cases were.”
Traditionally, U.S.A.O.s did civil rights work when asked specifically to do so by the Justice Department, she said. “Any time we did anything, it was because main Justice asked us to do something,” she said. “So, for instance, you’ve seen a lot about desegregation cases recently. Those cases are typically initiated — all the work is done — by the education section in Washington, and they might ask me, as a U.S. attorney, to be a signatory.”
A procedural change has allowed U.S.A.O.s around the country to bring cases that need attention to the D.O.J. to get authorization to do them, which led Vance to seek a good way to determine what needed doing in North Alabama. “One of the early steps I took was to convene this group of stakeholders in an advisory capacity to our office on civil rights issues,” she said. “And as they began to raise more and more issues for us, we needed more capacity to do that work.”
More capacity meant, among other things, attorneys skilled in and dedicated to various kinds of civil rights issues on both the criminal and civil sides of the law. The work was defined as Vance and members of her staff built broader connections with law enforcement officials, politicians, and members of the community throughout the 31 counties in the Northern District of Alabama, she said. And her determination to be proactive in dealing with community issues led to civil rights cases that were not traditional.
One example involved the civil rights of school-age kids with diabetes. Specifically, the U.S.A.O., working with the D.O.J.’s Civil Rights Division, took on a wide-ranging investigation of the state of Alabama’s policy requiring that a student with diabetes attend a school whose staff includes a nurse. That policy resulted in students being transferred from their neighborhood schools. The investigation resulted in a change in state law, enacted in 2014, which prevents students from being transferred from their neighborhood school solely because of being afflicted with diabetes.
“The diabetes case was the first significant civil rights matter that we did,” Vance said. “And the more we did, the more people came in and talked with us about issues and the more we saw that there was work to be done… work that really demanded that we do it to protect the community.”
The nature of the work led to the development of an internal working group known as the Civil Rights Enforcement Unit or C.R.E.U., staffed by lawyers from each legal discipline in Vance’s office. Over time, the number of cases grew large enough for the creation of a civil rights division headed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey. The attorneys in the division handle a wide variety of civil and criminal cases, including those involving prisoner and prisoner rights and prisoner reentry and recidivism prevention, and cases involving allegations of police corruption and misconduct under color of law.
Color of Law
One of the most controversial areas in civil rights today has become a staple of the nightly news — cases involving allegations that police officers have violated the civil rights of civilians under the color of law — essentially, misusing the power of their badges. Such cases are becoming increasingly familiar in public discussion — and as a driving force behind the Black Lives Matter movement and the impetus for numerous protest demonstrations around the country: Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner’s choking death in New York, Tamir Rice’s shooting in Cleveland, Freddie Gray’s death after his arrest in Baltimore, Sandra Bland’s suicide while in police custody after her arrest in Texas, and a long list of others have exacerbated fundamental mistrust of law enforcement among some in minority neighborhoods. “Communities have begun to question whether law enforcement is on their side,” Vance said.
Vance’s office was dealing with allegations of police misconduct long before and completely apart from the recent explosion of social protests arising from such cases, she said. “What has expanded dramatically in our district is police color of law cases. That docket expanded for us before Ferguson, before any of the issues that are on the national stage,” she said, adding that police departments have often been more proactive than public perception suggests in cleaning up their own houses.
“Law enforcement began to come to us with problems that occurred in their departments because obviously, as a police or sheriff agency, you can’t police in a community if the community doesn’t trust you,” Vance said. “And so it’s important to law enforcement that on those rare occasions when an officer engages in misconduct, they be held accountable. And that sometimes includes federal prosecution. That’s what gives police departments the legitimacy to work in their communities.”
Vance said that investigating and prosecuting police officers is a “fraught” area, because most cops do their jobs honorably. “We work every day with officers who are so deeply concerned about protecting their communities,” she said. “Police officers have very difficult jobs, and it’s very easy for armchair observers to second-guess actions that a police officer takes during a high-threat moment.
“Our job is not, frankly, to judge police officers. Our job is to evaluate all of the evidence that exists once a situation is identified, to look at that evidence and then to make a call whether there is probable cause to believe that a federal crime was committed.”
Sometimes, that means that accused officers accused are not charged. She cited a case where “the first videotape that we looked at — it looked like the officer had really done something that was improper. And we got secondary videotape from two other locations. And when you were able to look at all of the videotape and see everything that was going on, it became clear that he had not acted improperly,” she said. “So I personally learned a lot from that situation — it was important to be objective, to take your time, to listen to everybody, to not prejudge people based on what was being said on the TV or on Facebook.
“At the same time, though, there are these incidents where these officers overstepped their bounds and it’s critically important that they be held accountable.”
Cops on trial
In Vance’s jurisdiction, the most prominent color of law trial was a case that federal prosecutors did not win: that of Eric Parker, the Madison Police officer who arrested Sureshbhai Patel, a 57-year-old grandfather from India who was visiting his son. Patel, who doesn’t speak English, was taking a walk when a neighbor reported “a skinny black man wearing a toboggan” acting suspiciously, leading to Patel’s encounter with police officers, including Parker. Police dash cam video showed Parker picking Patel up and slamming him to the ground.
Patel remains partly paralyzed as a result of the incident, which became an international touchstone on what many observers saw as police brutality and ethnic bias. Parker lost his job as an officer, and was charged under Alabama state law with misdemeanor third degree assault. The FBI charged him with deprivation of Patel’s rights under color of law, and after Parker was indicted by a federal grand jury, Vance’s office prosecuted the case in court.
Parker, who said Patel was resisting arrest, was tried twice in federal court on charges of felony civil rights abuse, with each trial ending in a mistrial when jurors were unable to reach unanimous verdicts. Before a third trial could proceed, U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala dismissed the case, ending the federal prosecution. Parker’s state charges were dismissed in July 2016. He went back to work at the Madison Police Department.
“I think it’s worth noting that we tried it twice,” Vance said. “The jury hung both times. We were prepared to try it a third time but the judge decided that she did not want to have it tried a third time. We thought that case was egregious. The conduct was captured on videotape, and so I would have liked to have tried it a third time. … We entrust cases to the jury system in this country. Twice a jury split its decision. Some folks felt he was guilty, some folks felt he was innocent. We require unanimous jury verdicts. I think we would have convicted had we tried it a third time.”
Despite their prominence when they occur, cases like the one against Parker are relatively rare, Vance said. And unlike the Parker case, many of the nonfatal police misconduct cases that bring federal prosecution don’t get national attention. One such case involved Madison County officer Justin Watson.
“The conduct in this case I think is worth pointing out,” Vance said. “He [Watson] had a bar fight with an individual. He didn’t know who that individual was. He used his resources as part of law enforcement to identify that individual, to track him down, to pull him over. He pulled him over in a traffic stop in his police vehicle, struck him in the face, knocked out his teeth, beat him with a baton and choked him into unconsciousness. The other police officers who responded said that had they not arrived when they did, they were afraid Watson might have killed the man.
“He has pled guilty to obstruction of justice… Obviously this is an example of the kind of officer who should face federal charges because otherwise, communities cannot have trust in that department. This is a department that did the right thing. This is a righteous federal prosecution.”
Another case Vance’s office prosecuted involved a jail guard in Tuscaloosa.
“Althea Mallisham was a sheriff’s deputy in Tuscaloosa. She was actually the jail supervisor,” Vance said. “She used Tasers on inmates, and we charged her with a couple of incidents including one where she deliberately directed other employees to take the inmate out of view of the cameras and then proceeded to repeatedly tase the abdomen and the lower body of the inmate.”
According to the Tuscaloosa News, which covered the case in 2012, “On June 9, 2008, Mallisham used a X26 Taser on a man who was confined in a solitary, medical observance cell because he suffered from anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. The man was banging on the cell door and shouting before Mallisham responded and shocked him five times.
“On Sept. 16, 2008, surveillance cameras captured Mallisham using a Taser on a man who was shouting and kicking the door of a holding cell. Five days later, she used the Taser to shock a woman who had been in a fight with another inmate. Her hands were cuffed as another corrections officers escorted her through the jail hallway. Mallisham instructed the officer to take the inmate around a corner and out of view of cameras before she repeatedly used the Taser on her abdomen and lower body.”
“At sentencing she indicated, or I think maybe her lawyer indicated for her, that she had always been a good officer but she gave in to sort of an environment that demanded that she be tough and that she was very regretful,” Vance said. Mallisham was sentenced to 61 months in prison.
“Again, these cases send strong deterrent messages to police officers that this sort of conduct won’t be accepted,” Vance said. “These cases are akin to public corruption cases…. they damage not just the victim, but the entire community. So a case like this, that tells people you can’t trust the police to keep you safe if you’re in custody, was so critical for us to do — for the individual victim, for the community and also to preserve the integrity of that sheriff’s department.”
The color of law cases federal prosecutors have taken on in north Alabama include Winston County Deputy Sheriff Grady Concord, who forced a woman to manufacture methamphetamine for him; Tuscaloosa Police Officer Jason Thomas, who offered a woman a ride in his patrol car, then sexually assaulted her; Huntsville Police Officer Brett Russell, who used excessive force during an arrest, beat up the defendant, stole his boots as a trophy, and bragged about it; Stevenson Police Chief Danny Winters, who, when a friend became a victim of a burglary, identified a suspect, then allowed his friend to assist in beating the suspect up; and Birmingham Police Officer Corey Hooper, who beat up a handcuffed suspect inside a patrol car.
Seen as a whole, the color of law cases are important, Vance said, because “it sends a message that in North Alabama we will not tolerate police misconduct,” Vance said. “We will vigilantly prosecute and hold police officers accountable with appropriate sentences. But we also honor and recognize the work of police officers who go out everyday on the beat protecting people. And we do that in any number of ways. We have a very strong policy of supporting those agencies with training when they request it — and they do. The overwhelming number of chiefs and sheriffs want to strengthen their forces and ensure that they do things right.”
Community Relations Service
Cases involving police misconduct, even when there is no prosecution, can lead to an opportunity to build stronger ties in a given community, Vance said. “For instance, in Anniston there were reports that the chief had to dismiss a couple of officers because they were members of a white supremacist group,” Vance said.
In 2015, Lt. Josh Doggrell was fired and Lt. Wayne Brown retired after the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog revealed their connection to a white nationalist organization known as the League of the South. The revelation of that affiliation raised questions about the Anniston Police Department’s relations with some of the people it is sworn to protect.
“There was enormous concern in that community, and it was difficult for the department and the community to engage,” Vance said. “So we held a meeting in Anniston with the Community Relations Service, which is an entity in the Department of Justice that’s very skillful in creating safe spaces for communities to discuss issues that concern them — often areas of racial tension. And that meeting, which went on for hours, was a vehicle for the police chief to really be cross-examined by the community.
“I was proud of the community, and I was proud of the chief. He stood there forthrightly for hours answering their questions, and at the end of the meeting one of the leading folks in the African American community in Anniston said, ‘You know, we can work with you. You’ve been straight with us.’ And they went on, I think, to have conversations that were meaningful, that have helped that department begin to make some progress.”
Vance said that the D.O.J.’s CRS has “a heavy presence in this district” organizing such community meetings. An example was a meeting stemming from the controversy surrounding the passage of Alabama’s immigration law HB56. Widely viewed as one of the toughest immigration measures in the nation, HB56 led to protests across the state, condemnation by civil rights groups throughout the country, and opposition from the Justice Department.
Eventually all of HB56’s key provisions were overturned after protracted cases in court. But it sparked no small amount of tension locally. “There was enormous concern in the immigrant community, enormous concern in the religious community, about whether they would be subjected to criminal charges if they were doing work,” Vance said. Among the provisions in HB56 were prohibitions against transporting or harboring illegal immigrants or knowingly hiring undocumented workers for any job in the state.
“So we held a series of meetings with CRS where we tried to let people air their concerns,” Vance said. “So much of civil rights work just involves good communication. It’s so easy for people to vilify folks who they don’t understand, who they don’t interact with.”
In the same vein, Vance’s office also recently held a community meeting between the Birmingham Police Department and members of Black Lives Matter Birmingham, in an effort to broker understanding between the organizations, particularly involving the Violence Reduction Initiative. The VRI is an effort to prevent homicide by dealing particularly with repeat offenders among the small population of people statistically known to cause the most crime.
“Everybody got a chance to talk to each other,” Vance said, “And instead of just what we thought about each other, we got to learn about who we really were. It was an incredibly insightful meeting for me, and the folks at Black Lives Matter in Birmingham, a UAB professor, a University of Alabama law student — really smart, thoughtful people, I think, with a very important agenda. We got to see them and understand what they wanted to accomplish. They, by the same token, I think, got a very different view of the police department and of federal law enforcement by the time they left the meeting.”
Meetings like that one are held outside the public eye. They’re not designed to garner publicity, but they do illustrate a core tenet of Vance’s approach to her job as the top federal law enforcement officer in north Alabama: going beyond just prosecuting criminals and looking for the root of a problem in the community. “You know it’s not flashy for a U.S. attorney to sit down with police department and community people and hold a meeting, but at the end of the day it’s some of the most important work we do — keeping problems from happening before they do,” she said.
“We approach every civil rights incident like we approach every kind of crime— with the same sort of framework,” she said. “Can we prevent future problems? Is there an opportunity for prevention? Is there an obligation to enforce? Are there either criminal, or civil or administrative charges that should be brought? And then, at the end, what can we do to help people understand what happened and move forward?”
Next week Weld continues our conversation with Vance about the work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office on the civil rights including of religious minorities, voters, prisoners, and ex-offenders, and why she believes everyone should be concerned about everyone else’s civil rights.