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RACHEL MARTIN, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The U.S. Justice Department is stepping up its scrutiny of troubled police departments across the country. Last week, the federal government began investigating whether police in Portland, Oregon, use excessive force when dealing with mentally ill people. Civil rights lawyers are looking at how 15 other departments - from Arizona to New Jersey - treat minorities, and use force against suspects. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON: When it comes to federal oversight of local police, there's only one place to start.

(Soundbite of archived news conference)

DARYL GATES (Former L.A. Police Chief): In our review, we find that the officers struck him with batons between 53 and 56 times. One officer rendered six kicks, and one officer, one kick.

JOHNSON: That's the late Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, talking about the 1991 attack on Rodney King. That incident prompted Congress to give the Justice Department the power to investigate patterns of discrimination by local cops.

TOM PEREZ (Justice Department Official): This is not a gotcha exercise. We're not in this to fix the blame. We're in this to fix the problem.

JOHNSON: That's Tom Perez. He leads the civil rights unit at the Justice Department. Since the start of the Obama administration, his lawyers have launched investigations all over the country, from Seattle to Newark to New Orleans.

PEREZ: I think what we're doing differently in this administration - aside from doing more of it - is I think we're doing it in a much more strategic way, with a focus on systemic reform.

JOHNSON: Systemic reform. That means asking law enforcement to track how many minorities they stop and frisk, and how many times police use guns or other weapons against suspects. Craig Futterman represents victims of law enforcement abuse.

CRAIG FUTTERMAN: The newer interventions now, in New Orleans and Newark, are signs of renewed commitment by the federal government and Department of Justice.

JOHNSON: There's really no one else that can do the job, Futterman says.

FUTTERMAN: Well, it's the age-old question of who polices the police.

JOHNSON: But people who speak for police officers want the feds to slam on the brakes. Jim Pasco lobbies for the Fraternal Order of Police in Washington, D.C.

JIM PASCO: Police officers are on your side and my side. They're not the enemy, and shouldn't be treated as such.

JOHNSON: All too often, Pasco says, street cops get blamed for the failures of their managers.

PASCO: In a very small minority of cases where officers overstep or misstep, we would agree that something needs to be done. But to just wholesale investigate police departments - trolling, in effect, for problems - is something that has a chilling effect on rank-and-file officers.

JOHNSON: Sometimes, the Justice Department says, exposing dirty laundry to the chilly air is exactly what's needed. Again, Perez.

PEREZ: We are doing no favors to law-abiding officers. We're doing no favors to communities by sweeping these challenges under the rug.

JOHNSON: And nowhere is that rug bigger than in the Big Easy, where Justice spent 11 months investigating the New Orleans Police Department. Here's what they found: widespread racial profiling, unconstitutional searches, and the failure to investigate rape and domestic violence.

At a news conference in March, Perez blamed the paid detail system, a sort of sanctioned moonlighting by police officers, for much of the department's trouble.

PEREZ: That detail system, in the opinion of one observer of the department, is the aorta of corruption in that department.

JOHNSON: Over the past few weeks, several officers in New Orleans have been put on leave in a widening scandal over those arrangements. Justice Department officials say they expect to reach a settlement agreement with the city by the end of the year.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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