Tom Perez, the Justice Department's top civil rights lawyer, has investigated hate crimes and police abuses for years. Now he faces one of his biggest challenges yet.
On Tuesday, city officials from Sanford, Florida, trekked to Washington for a meeting on Capitol Hill with a group of black lawmakers and officials of the Justice Department's civil rights division. The topic at hand: the recently announced investigation of the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot in late February by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, while walking back to his father's house in a gated community from a local convenience store.
Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplet told the group he'd spent the last few days listening repeatedly to the recording of Zimmerman's 911 call, according to Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who was present at the meeting. After the shooting, Zimmerman told the police that Martin had attacked him and he had acted in self-defense. Apparently believing his version of events, the Sanford police did not arrest him. But the 911 tape suggested that Zimmerman had pursued Martin, even though he had been warned against doing so by the 911 dispatcher.
When Hastings suggested that Zimmerman might have uttered a racial slur on the call, Triplet pulled a copy of the recording out of a folder and passed it to the DOJ's deputy attorney general for civil rights, Thomas Perez. Sanford's city manager, Norton Bonaparte, implored Perez to probe the conduct of the Sanford police.
The inquiry being conducted by Perez's division and the FBI is focused on the actual shooting, in part to determine whether it was a hate crime. But as questions continue to emerge about the Sanford police department's handling of this and other racially charged cases, civil rights leaders have urged the feds broaden the inquiry to include a civil investigation into possible police wrongdoing. And this is an area Perez knows well. During his two-year tenure at the civil rights division, he has quietly led a federal crusade against police misconduct, pursuing 19 investigations of local police departments—the most in the division's history.