U.S. Attorney Speaks on Protecting Civil Liberties
Knowledge in Action:
U.S. Attorney Speaks at USC Price on Protecting Civil Liberties
By Cristy Lytal
Photo by Deirdre Flanagan
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André Birotte Jr., United States attorney for the Central District of California, invoked the words of one of America’s greatest civil rights crusaders during the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy Dean’s Distinguished Lecture on April 3 at Doheny Memorial Library.
“It was Martin Luther King who so profoundly observed that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Birotte, who has taught legal writing and advocacy at the USC Gould School of Law.
His talk, “Protecting Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in 21st Century Los Angeles,” introduced his office, which aims to promote justice. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California represents the federal government in criminal, civil and tax cases in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. With approximately 270 assistant United States attorneys and 150 members of a support staff, the office serves the nation’s most populous federal judicial district encompassing 19 million people and tremendous cultural diversity.
“The challenge within the challenge, if you will, is to make sure that the priorities that we set forth are in line with the communities that we are so proud and privileged to serve,” Birotte said. “That’s really where community outreach comes in. And our public outreach throughout the district has certainly demonstrated to me that protecting civil rights and civil liberties is of acute interest here.”
According to Birotte, one area of progress in the civil rights arena is the improved relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and the city it serves. Birotte, who previously was the Los Angeles Police Commission’s inspector general, credited the LAPD’s increased community outreach, as well as the vision of its leaders, for the progress.
“I would submit that there is no other major urban police department anywhere in the country that has as dedicated a commitment to constitutional policing as the LAPD,” Birotte said. “And this comes down from Chief [Charlie] Beck and his predecessor Bill Bratton – that there is no excuse to break the law in order to enforce the law.”
The LAPD’s response to the Occupy movement exemplified its dedication to this principle, Birotte noted. And the need for constitutional policing extends to the Los Angeles County jails, where allegations of misconduct and excessive force are being investigated.
Civil rights issues also have been at the forefront of the turbulent financial realm. In December 2011, Birotte’s office and the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., announced a $335 million settlement with Bank of America. Among the allegations was that the company’s Countrywide Financial unit steered minority customers into higher-risk junk loans during the housing boom.
“Honestly, our work in this field is never truly done; it’s never truly finished,” Birotte said. “Certainly not if our goal is to build and maintain a society where all persons are treated equally and fairly under the law.”
During the lively question and answer session that followed, audience members asked about everything from unjust laws to the disproportional incarceration of African Americans.
Master of Public Policy student John Roberson III inquired about Birotte’s strategies for engaging with the community. Birotte responded that he spends two or three nights a week at community functions. His office also is hosting a consumer protection community summit in the Crenshaw district and has become involved in the Summer Night Lights program, an anti-gang initiative that keeps parks open for children and families after dark.
Explaining why he invests so much time in getting to know community members face to face, Birotte recalled that during the U.S. Attorneys Conference in Washington, D.C., he and his colleagues received a surprise visit from President Obama.
“He said to us, ‘Look, I’ve appointed you all, but you don’t work for me. You work for the people in your district, and your job is to do right by them. That means engaging with them, connecting with them and identifying what their needs and concerns are.’ ”