The U.S. Department of Justice is carrying out a new probe into the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Seen are DA Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. (File photos by Orange County Register/SCNG)

Tony Saavedra / Staff Writer
Jan. 6, 2017 – Updated 9:18 p.m.

Community forums. Face-to-face meetings with leaders of the local deputies union and with local defense attorneys. Twitter.

Is this any way to conduct a civil-rights investigation?

Actually it is. All of those forms of public outreach – many of them as likely to get people talking to each other as they are to ferret out misconduct – could be part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s new probe into the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

The tactics were among many details spelled out in a report released this week that describes the role of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, which enforces a law enacted in the mid-1990s after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles.

The playbook shows that as federal lawyers conduct their probe of the county’s ongoing jailhouse informant scandal – a process that could take many months – they hope to diffuse any public tension even if they have to force changes in the county’s justice system.

The document also makes two clear statements:

One: The fact that federal officials are here indicates that, in their view, the county’s prosecutors and jailers have exhibited signs of systemic failure, in this case the routine misuse of jailhouse informants and withholding of evidence from defense attorneys to win convictions. The Justice Department doesn’t typically look at one-time violations, and evidence that wrongdoing is routine and ongoing is the minimum threshold to launch an investigation.

Two: Just because they’re investigating is not a sign they’ll find actual wrongdoing. In more than a third of the investigations launched by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, federal prosecutors did not find misconduct.

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