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The Obama Justice Department says it wants to make protecting civil rights one of its legacies, so a dozen U.S. attorneys across the country have created special units to devote more attention to building those cases.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Justice Department leaders traveled to Pittsburgh late last year for a special announcement. At the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, named after the well-known black playwright, civil rights division chief Tom Perez told a crowd filled with dozens of activists for racial and gender equality that they'd soon have another place to turn with their concerns.

Mr. TOM PEREZ (Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice): There are roughly a dozen U.S. attorneys offices now that have established dedicated civil rights units, and we're working to raise that number because this is about sustainability.

JOHNSON: Perez says the Obama civil rights division prosecuted 237 criminal cases over the last two years - a record. But numbers aren't the only measure that prosecutors are using for success.

Steve Dettelbach is the U.S. attorney in Cleveland, and he's in charge of a special group of prosecutors who want to modernize civil rights enforcement.

Mr. STEVE DETTELBACH (U.S. Attorney, District of Northern Ohio): In the civil rights area, one of the things that you have to make sure is that the people in some of these affected communities, who don't always trust law enforcement, know that we are open for business.

JOHNSON: Open for business and telling people about a law signed by President Obama that expands the definition of hate crimes. The law now covers assaults motivated by a victim's gender or sexual orientation.

The U.S. attorneys aren't getting any extra money because of the tight federal budget, so they're having to balance civil rights as a priority with other demands.

One of the busiest areas over the last two years is Arizona. That's where U.S. attorney Dennis Burke created a special unit to emphasize how important the issues are. Burke has sued a school system and a controversial sheriff who's under investigation for discriminating against Latinos.

Burke's paying a lot of attention to making sure that police follow the law.

Mr. DENNIS BURKE (U.S. Attorney, District of Arizona): We are training federal, state and local law enforcement, and talking to them about federal civil rights, their responsibilities; and ensuring that when they are out there, they're cognizant of the rights of individuals they're interacting with, potentially arresting, potentially interviewing.

JOHNSON: Denise Coley has lived that lesson. Her son Carlton died in the Lucas County, Ohio jail six years ago, after a sergeant beat him and left him in a jail cell. At first, officers said Carlton, who was only 25 years old, died from natural causes. His mother never believed that. She says she's grateful to the FBI and the prosecutors who moved ahead with the case.

Ms. DENISE COLEY: I feel like they did a wonderful job, as far as presenting my case, my son's case. I knew that the truth would come out eventually - 'cause, like I said, you can only hide for so long.

JOHNSON: Last month, a judge sentenced one of the sheriff's officers to three years in prison for violating Carlton's civil rights and writing false reports to cover up the beating.

But some groups, particularly activists for the Muslim American community, doubt that the Justice Department is always practicing what it preaches. One group called Muslim Advocates sued the FBI and the attorney general over surveillance practices that investigators use in places like churches and mosques.

Muslim Advocates worries that the surveillance is itself a civil rights problem, and that it's leaving the wrong impression about Islam.

Nura Maznavi, a lawyer at the group, describes the concern.

Ms. NURA MAZNAVI (Staff Attorney, Muslim Advocates): When you have that blanket of suspicion that's cast over an entire community, it essentially fosters this sort of paranoia and this fear against the Muslim community.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department says those FBI surveillance practices don't discriminate against Muslims. And civil rights prosecutors are investigating violence against mosques and Muslims.

Attorney General Eric Holder still wanted to clear the air, so he went to speak to the Muslim Advocates group late last year. People who attended said he got a polite, if not warm, reception.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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