Communities Confront Abuse
We are facing what appears to be an epidemic. Police officers have become
the aggressors in the war on crime, pushed by our political culture, by
politicians who play to the average American's fear about safety and violence.
A random sampling of headlines from across the country provides a frightening
portrait of police misconduct:
* The family of an unarmed African-American shot to death by police in Des
Moines, Iowa, in April is suing the city and the officers claiming they
used excessive force during a domestic dispute.
* The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department announced in
April that it has been investigating New Jersey's State Police force to
determine if troopers regularly violate the civil rights of minority motorists,
because of allegations from black leaders that troopers routinely stop motorists
based on race.
* Four New York City police officers remain under investigation by the Bronx
district attorney's office and the federal Department of Justice for firing
41 shots at close range and killing an unarmed West African immigrant in
the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building in February.
* Three African-American men were wounded in New Jersey in April 1998 after
two white troopers pulled over their van for speeding. State troopers fired
at the van saying it was backing toward them.
* Officers assigned to the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn, N.Y., were accused
of viciously beating and sodomizing Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997
after he was arrested outside of the night club where he was working.
* An unarmed African-American woman was killed In West Charlotte, N.C.,
in April 1997 after police fired 22 shots into the car in which she was
a passenger after if failed to stop at a police road checkpoint.
* A Cleveland, Ohio, woman is suing the city claiming she was brutally beaten
in 1995 after she had an altercation with police inside a First District
The list goes on.
According Amnesty International, thousands of incidents of abuse and assault
by police are reported each year. However, hard numbers are nearly impossible
to come by, because police abuses generally are given low priority among
politicians. Politics dictates that elected officials -- at least those
who want to stay elected -- ratchet up the rhetoric on crime, that they
take the toughest stand possible when it comes to making our streets safer.
This kind of harsh rhetoric has helped create an atmosphere in which police
abuses are tolerated.
As The Nation pointed out in an April 26 editorial, our tough-on-crime
approach that has meant 15 years of legislative incentives that reward police
for increased arrest levels, encourage neighborhood drug sweeps and fund
"trigger-happy SWAT teams" and court decisions that broaden the
powers of the police, including the authority to conduct searches and rely
on racial profiling. These incentives, The Nation says, are "the
very circumstances most likely to precipitate violent encounters."
What few numbers there are seem to bear this out. According to New York
Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer, New York's hard-line, zero-tolerance
approach may be responsible for safer streets, but it has come with a price.
"(W)ith this intensive cop work has come record-high complaints of
brutality and rudeness," he wrote in the wake of the Louima case, referring
to the New York force. "Even with a slight dip this year that the mayor
frequently cites, the civilian complaint level is still far ahead of any
point in the years prior to his election." He added that brutality
lawsuits against the city were up by 25% during the first three years of
the Rudolph Giuliani administration and that "the Giuliani administration
has stonewalled investigations into its handling of brutality and has stalled
reforms." Most complaints by civilians against cops are dismissed or
dropped, Dwyer says, and in those cases in which abuse is substantiated
"the Police Department doesn't do much."
Of course, New York is not the only city in which police abuses are tolerated.
According to Amnesty International, brutality investigations across the
country "are often subject to delay and there are concerns about the
quality and impartiality of internal investigations. Disciplinary action
is rare. Sanctions, when they are imposed, are often lenient."
Part of the reason is race. Amnesty International reviewed more than 30
cases in a 1996 report in which New York police officers had shot or injured
suspects in disputed circumstances. According to Amnesty International,
"nearly all the victims were black, Latino or from other minorities
-- a pattern seen across the country. Members of racial and ethnic minorities
bear the brunt of police brutality in many areas. Black officers themselves
have complained of the stereotyping of black men as criminal suspects."
This racial disparity -- combined with falling crime rates -- makes it easy
for whites, especially suburban whites, to ignore the problem, to assume
it has no bearing on their lives. Police brutality, racial profiling, bias
are the problems of the city, the reasoning goes. Higher city crime rates
justify more intensive and invasive police practices are a necessary price,
But they're not. Safe streets and a respect for civil rights and civil liberties
can co-exist -- as community policing initiatives in cities like Oakland,
Calif., and New Haven, Conn., prove.
The politics of the situation do seem daunting, but only until one considers
the effect that grassroots campaigns in San Francisco and Boston and dozens
of other communities have had. In San Francisco, grassroots organizing has
led to changes in the way the city's Police Department operates and the
creation of a permanent hotline, database and legal advocacy center for
misconduct complaints, according to The Nation. And police in Boston
are now working with neighborhood organizations and churches on ways to
better serve the community.
Even in New York, where Mayor Giuliani has built his career on his get-tough
attitude, there have been citizen victories. The Giuliani administration
was forced to take action after Louima was brutalized and
again after the Diallo shooting resulted in a wave of protests. The police
accused in the Louima are facing criminal charges, their superior officers
have been reassigned and the precinct where they worked has been reorganized.
The investigation is ongoing into the Diallo shooting, but the street-crimes
unit -- whose motto was "We own the night" -- will receive retraining
and there are questions about its future.
And this is just a start. Citizen action can change police work. It has
Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor living in South Brunswick,
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