Chapter 4: How Can Police Brutality Be Reduced?
Preventing Police Brutality: An Overview
About the author: Richard Lacayo is a senior writer for Time magazine.
Police brutality works only in the dark. The sadistic assault on Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was allegedly sodomized with a toilet-plunger handle by New York City police [in August 1997], was supposed to be confined to a station-house bathroom. But now that the attack is a public outrage—his injuries took him to the hospital, and from there to newspaper front pages—much more is at stake than just the reputation of Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct, where four officers face charges. All around the country, the aggressive, “zero tolerance” policing strategy—which has contributed to New York’s plummeting crime rate and is being imitated in other cities—is now getting a second look.
All but career criminals are happy with the nationwide drop in such crimes as murder, rape and assault. But the Louima attack, which is also an assault, has citizens wondering whether one kind of public order has been achieved at the cost of another. In short, is America’s crackdown on crime bringing with it an increase in police brutality? The best answer, in most cities, is probably not— though harassment and violence against minorities remains endemic in some quarters. “This is a major problem in this country, particularly in urban areas,” says Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union [N.Y.C.L.U.]. In truth, no one keeps reliable...
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Radical Changes Are Needed to Counter Police Brutality
About the author: People Against Racist Terror publishes Turning the Tide, a quarterly journal of antiracist, antisexist, and antihomophobic activism, research, and education.
The horrifying police torture of Abner Louima in New York City in 1997 has once again drawn media attention to the issue of police abuse, brutality, and corruption. But the media has focused exclusively on the forcible sodomy of this Haitian immigrant—by cops with a stick apparently from a toilet plunger which police then shoved in his mouth, breaking his teeth after they had torn his rectum, bowel and bladder. By excluding numerous other cases, including killings, not only in New York but around the country, this reinforces the police claim that such a horrifying incident is only an “unfortunate aberration.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Not an Isolated Incident
Consider the following incidents, not one of which was mentioned in a single news report or feature article on the torture of Louima. Within a week of that attack, a white cop in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, was acquitted of killing a 52- year-old mentally ill Black man. Police in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell Gardens shot and killed Alfieri Shinaia, 23, after he didn’t raise his hands when they ordered him to, while they were serving a search warrant. Chicago police shot and killed Andrew Durham, 21, an unarmed Black man. Baltimore police shot and killed James Quarles, 22,...
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The Police Must Be Subject to Community Oversight
About the author: The American Civil Liberties Union is a national organization that works to defend civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The following viewpoint is excerpted from their publication Fighting Police Abuse: A Community Action Manual.
The bad news is . . . police abuse is a serious problem. It has a long history, and it seems to defy all attempts at eradication.
The problem is national; no police department in the country is known to be completely free of misconduct. Yet it must be fought locally; the nation’s 19,000 law enforcement agencies are essentially independent. While some federal statutes specify criminal penalties for willful violations of civil rights and conspiracies to violate civil rights, the United States Department of Justice has been insufficiently aggressive in prosecuting cases of police abuse. There are shortcomings, too, in federal law itself, which does not permit “pattern and practice” lawsuits. The battle against police abuse must, therefore, be fought primarily on the local level.
The Good News
The good news is . . . the situation is not hopeless. Policing has seen much progress. Some reforms do work, and some types of abuse have been reduced. Today, among both police officials and rank and file officers, it is widely recognized that police brutality hinders good law enforcement.
To fight police abuse effectively, you must have...
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Civilian Review Boards Must Police the Police
About the author: Lynne Wilson, an attorney in Seattle, writes frequently about police accountability issues.
“I had been in internal affairs investigations a couple of times, and they were very easy to breeze through. I answered a few questions. I lied through every answer, and I went back to patrol.” —Former New York City police officer Michael Dowd
On August 21, 1994, Moises DeJesus was arrested by police officers patroling Philadelphia’s largely Latino 25th District. Handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, the 30-year-old suspect had a “mental fit or seizure,” said Gerard Mc- Cabe, an attorney for Philadelphia’s newly formed Police Advisory Commission (PAC), “and started kicking out the windows to get air.” He was then allegedly beaten in the head by the officers, lapsed into a coma, and died three days later. After the district attorney refused to press charges against the officers, Latino community leaders demanded an inquiry. DeJesus’ death in police custody became the first major case for the recently formed Philadelphia PAC and sparked the citizen oversight commission’s first public hearing. The investigation also set off an all out war on the Philadelphia PAC by the local Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge No. 5.
The FOP attacked on three fronts. First, when PAC investigators began questioning officers about the DeJesus incident, FOP President Rich Costello...
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The Police Must Be Involved in Their Communities
About the author: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the United States.
There must be serious change in the very concept of policing in our cities and towns. The first change must be to do away with the “us versus them” dynamic of police-community relations. This drawing of lines—and more, this taking of sides—only fosters racism and violence, and it needs to be altered.
There was much testimony throughout the six National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hearings held in 1991 in Norfolk, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, St. Louis, and Indianapolis on the police being outside or above the community. There was much testimony about an insular police culture that disparages all outsiders, particularly those in minority communities. There was considerable testimony by members of the African American community about the racial animosity that is part and parcel of the “us versus them” mentality.
The sides as drawn hold the police out as the good guys and everyone else— especially those of color—as the bad guys. This is the sort of outlook that fosters police disregard of the constitutional rights of young black people. This is the sort of value system that spawns police perjury. This is the ideology that fosters an apartheid-like experience for all African Americans in the inner city. Paradoxically, the “us...
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Public Officials Must Denounce Police Brutality
About the author: David N. Dinkins was the mayor of New York City from 1990 to 1994. In the following viewpoint, Dinkins refers to Rudolph Giuliani, who succeeded Dinkins as mayor of New York City in 1994 and was reelected in 1997.
The horrific brutalization of Abner Louima [by police officers in the New York Police Department in August 1997], and the silence of officers and supervisors during and immediately after the incident, has created public outrage, and rightly so. Yet police violence, which has resulted in the severe injury or death of individuals who have not even been charged with a crime, takes place in our city with disturbing regularity—and the silence surrounding these incidents reaches to the highest level of city government. Tragically, the mayor [Rudolph Giuliani] has failed to pay attention—or to actively discourage violent tactics—until this most recent incident in an election year.
Police Brutality Was Ignored
In the past, the mayor has consciously ignored or dismissed the issue of police brutality, thereby contributing to a climate in which it could flourish unchecked. Even today, the usually exacting chief executive, rather than immediately demanding to know the exact circumstances surrounding this event, simply says that he would “like to know” why it took an hour and a half to secure a police escort to take the severely injured Mr. Louima to the hospital.
I was advised by...
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The Police Must Be Held Accountable for Their Actions
About the author: John DeSantis is a reporter for United Press International and the author of The New Untouchables: How America Sanctions Police Violence.
The social climate has changed in the few years since people first cringed at the videotape of the beating Rodney King received on a Los Angeles street in 1991. Death and destruction visited southern California once again in 1994, when an earthquake ravaged highways and homes and claimed almost as many lives as the Rodney King riots. In the wake of that cataclysmic event, it appeared that issues of race and class and abuse of authority were made invisible by the shadows of helping hands extended from one Angeleno to another. As would be expected, the various local police departments performed admirably, providing whatever assistance they could to alleviate the tragedy’s immediate effects. A police officer, in fact, was one of the first fatalities.
In other parts of the country, many police departments seemed to have become more aware of the dangers that could come from looking the other way from the problem of police violence. National police organizations continued their efforts to professionalize their member departments, encouraging ranking officials to take steps that might prevent abuse of force, and to take proper disciplinary action against offenders.
Whether this new post-King consciousness has resulted in an overall decline of brutality complaints or incidents...
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Congressional Oversight of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Would Reduce Brutality
About the author: Robert J. Caldwell is the editor of the Sunday editorial section of the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper. No cause is well served by zealots or fanatics, and least of all by terrorists.
Accordingly, legitimate questions about misconduct by federal law enforcement agencies have been clouded by the tragic terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, by the unsettling militia movement and by such diversionary tempests as that prompted by the rhetorical excesses of the National Rifle Association.
It hardly needs repeating that the criminals responsible for the bombing that killed 169 men, women and children in the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City must be caught, tried, convicted and then punished to the maximum extent of the law.
It’s equally obvious that armed, paramilitary groups are a disturbing phenomenon and, perhaps, a potential threat to public safety in some instances. If the latter, they need monitoring by the appropriate authorities.
And, of course, shrill rhetoric from the NRA, prompting another round of sometimes equally shrill NRA bashing from the press and the Clinton White House, adds nothing useful to public discourse on the issue in question.
That issue, simply put, is whether certain federal law enforcement agencies including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have been guilty of running...
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Communities Must Stand Up to the Police
About the author: Van Jones is the director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco.
Looking to make an example of someone, security forces enter a middleincome neighborhood. Two officers single out a youth for arrest, pick him up and slam him viciously on the pavement. His mother emerges from her home, screaming “My baby! My baby! Stop!” One officer spins around and punches the woman in the stomach, doubling her over.
Seeing this, hundreds of people come pouring out of their houses. They free the boy, rough up the officers and send them on their way. Sirens wailing and lights flashing, the security forces return minutes later intent on restoring order. But the growing crowd—made up of mamas and grandmamas and everyday folks—refuses to retreat, facing off with their tormentors and declaring, “You can’t come in this neighborhood beating on our children anymore.”
Thrilling stuff, huh? A scene from Northern Ireland? Palestine? Apartheid South Africa? A new Hollywood release? The answer: None of the above. This all happened in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood—on January 9, 1997.
The incident was not isolated. Just a few weeks before, residents of St. Petersburg, Florida, had taken to the streets after police killed an unarmed man.
Rebellions Against Exploitation and Oppression
Under ordinary circumstances,...
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