FBI breaks down color of law statute for Bergen County law enforcement

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

At a Bergen County symposium on civil rights, the speaker — an undercover FBI agent — asked the crowd to watch a police training video of a simulated shooting. The audience missed two critical factors in the video — the suspect also reached for a handgun at his waist, and the cop behind him yelled ‘Gun.’

“We always say, ‘Don’t rush to judgment’ but we’re people, right? We’re going to do that,” he said.

An audience of police, prosecutors and advocates learned how the FBI enforces the federal color of law statute. Color of law means anyone granted authority by the government, like a police officer, are prohibited from using that power to willfully deprive a victim of a constitutional right causing injury or death. Out of 776,000 times police used force across the United States, only 68 cases returned federal color of law convictions in 2008.

“When things go bad, when law enforcement doesn’t get it right, when the community is up in arms, and people are asking, ‘What shall we do?’ I’d like to say that as a starting point, we understand the process,” said Rev. Willard Ashley, vice chair of the Bergen County Human Relations Commission.

The process is complicated with lists of considerations. The crowd considered scenario two where a cop in uniform goes home midday and finds his wife with her lover. He hits his wife and arrests the lover, falsely charging that the guy assaulted him. Can the FBI prosecute under the federal Color of Law statute?

The lover, but not the wife, who wouldn’t perceive her husband as a law enforcement officer, the FBI said.

“That’s her husband. This is his job. That’s the norm,” the agent said. “He assaulted her. Can he be prosecuted for a state violation? Yes.”

It’s complex, and despite the law’s name, there’s no racial component, per se. But people of color often don’t report police abuse, the agent said.

“I believe that wholly, especially in the African-American community because of the history and fearfulness of law enforcement,” the agent said.

“People do not feel comfortable. We know that. How do we combat that, again? We talk to people,” Special Agent in Charge of the Newark Field Office of the FBI, Gregory Ehrie, said.

In this age of cellphone videos and police body cameras, people often think they see a violation, and sometimes they do. But the FBI says it takes an investigation to get to the truth.