US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s announcement this month that the Civil Rights Unit will investigate opposition to a proposed Muslim cemetery in Dudley is the second high-profile case the unit has undertaken since it was created six months ago. (The town’s Tuesday announcement that it will no longer seek to buy the plot of land where an Islamic group wants to create the state’s largest Muslim cemetery — a plan that fueled concerns of discrimination — will have no effect on the investigation, officials said.)
Ortiz earlier announced that the unit would also investigate racial tensions at the prestigious Boston Latin School, and that the investigation could conclude this fall.
As we await the results or the investigations, here’s an explanation of the Civil Rights Unit in Boston:
What is a Civil Rights Unit?
The US attorney’s office can investigate local government matters to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. In February, Ortiz announced the creation of a unit dedicated solely to investigating civil rights violations, though the US Attorney’s office previously deployed lawyers to investigate such cases when warranted.
What does the unit investigate?
The office can probe any allegation or possibility of discrimination. In the Dudley investigation, officials will examine whether town officials opposed the construction of a cemetery because it would be built by Muslims and used for religious purposes. In the investigation into Boston Latin School, community leaders asked the office to get involved after students complained of racial discrimination and harassment.
In past investigations, the US attorney’s office in Boston examined whether a housing association in Methuen imposed more stringent fines on families with children, and the office probed whether the Iron Workers pension plan discriminated against war veterans.
Around the country, civil rights units have looked into police departments accused of discriminating against minority communities.
Who can ask for an investigation?
Anyone can ask for an investigation, though the US attorney’s office often works with community leaders who have documented allegations of discrimination or harassment to determination whether the allegations are substantiated.
What type of authority does the US attorney have?
If it is determined that a civil rights violation has occurred, the US attorney can order an entity to take steps to remedy the immediate matter and any systemic issues that may have allowed the matter to occur in the first place. That could include requirements for new training for workers, for example, or a revision of local rules and regulations.
The entity may also agree to a punishment, such as a fine. Often, such resolutions are agreed upon by both parties in settlements to avoid protracted litigation.
The US attorney’s office can also file a civil lawsuit in US District Court to force an entity to comply. For instance, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in US District Court in Missouri alleging a pattern of discrimination by police and the municipal court system in Ferguson. The lawsuit was filed after local authorities refused to adopt new standards the Department of Justice recommended after a years-long investigation.
Are any civil rights violations criminal?
They can be. Two years ago, for instance, federal authorities charged a Plymouth police sergeant with criminally violating a person’s civil rights – the charge was “deprivation of constitutional rights under color of law” – after finding that the sergeant assaulted the person during an arrest and then tried to cover it up. The sergeant, Shawn Coughlin, was sentenced in July 2014 to a year in prison, followed by a year of supervised release, and was fined $7,500.
How long do investigations take? And when can we expect to know the findings of the Dudley and Boston Latin School cases.
There is no time limit for an investigation, and a spokeswoman from the US attorney’s office said that both investigations are ongoing.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.