A Brutalized America
Police brutality remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States. The excessive use of force by police officers persists because of overwhelming barriers to accountability. This fact makes it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses. Police or public officials greet each new report of brutality with denials or explain that the act was an aberration, while the administrative and criminal systems that should deter these abuses by holding officers accountable instead virtually guarantee them impunity (Williams 45).
Investigations find that police brutality is persistent in all cities, and the systems set up to deal with these abuses have all had similar failings in each city. It was also established that complainants often face enormous difficulty in seeking administrative punishment or criminal prosecution of officers who have committed human rights violations. A national survey was taken by the Seattle Times and states that seventy percent of all police crimes against the public go unreported (Database of Abusive Police). Despite claims to the contrary from city officials where abuses have become scandals in the media, efforts to make meaningful reforms have fallen short.
The scenarios are frighteningly similar from city to city. Shortcomings in recruitment, training, and management are common to all. So is the fact that officers who repeatedly commit human rights violations tend to be a small minority, but are still routinely protected by the silence of their fellow officers and by flawed systems of reporting. Another pervasive shortcoming is the scarcity of meaningful information about trends in abuse. Data is also lacking regarding the police departments’ response to those incidents and their plans or actions to prevent brutality. Where data does exist, there is no evidence that police administrators or, prosecutors utilize available information in a way to deter abuse. Another commonality in recent years is recognition, in most cities, about what needs to be done to fix troubled departments. However, this encouraging development is coupled with an official unwillingness to deal seriously with officers who commit abuses until high profile cases expose long-standing negligence or tolerance of brutality (Burris 26).
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Steubenville, Ohio, the Justice Department’s Civil
Rights Division has examined shortcomings in accountability for misconduct in those cities’ police departments; the cities agreed to implement reforms to end volatile practices rather than risk the Justice Department taking a case to court for injunctive action (ibid 67). The reforms proposed by the Justice Department were similar to those long advocated by community activists and civil rights groups. This includes better use-of-force training and policies, stronger reporting mechanisms, creation of early warning systems to identify current officers at risk of engaging in abuse, and improved disciplinary procedures. “Problem” officers would receive special monitoring, training and counseling to counter the heightened risk of brutality. Several other police departments, including those in Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia, are reportedly under investigation by the Civil Rights Division.
The majority of these human rights violation are against minorities. Racism plays a huge role in this type of behavior. There are cases within the inner cities in which a particular group of kids will be stopped, searched, and harassed for “looking suspicious” or “fitting the description of a suspect” daily by the police with no reports filled out at all. These incidents are common within minority communities. In New York City between the years of 1997-1998 the Street Crimes Unit stopped and over 45,000 men, mostly African American and Hispanic in order to make slightly more than 9000 arrest (Chua-Eoan 26). In New Jersey, Governor Christine Todd Whitman openly admitted to racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike. In the case of Abner Louima while the officers were committing this hanis crime they were quoted for saying that this is Guiliani time. This type of action implies that these are not a few isolated incidents and that it goes much deeper than just that group of officers. Don Jackson a former police sergeant in Hawthorne California states, “Excessive police force against blacks has always been tolerated. Investigations won’t make a difference the investigators support the police and more importantly the support the racist mentality that is responsible for most of the brutality”. (Burris 72) These types of statements tell a shocking story of how racism permeates police culture so deeply that it will require a monumental national effort to change the status quo.
Allegations of police abuse are rife in cities throughout the country and take many forms. There are a countless number of specific incidents that can be used as illustrations of the obstacles to deterring, investigating and acting upon perceived abuses. Any alleged abuse has a corrosive effect on public trust of the police force, and it is imperative that the system be reformed to prevent human rights violations such as the case of Amadou Diallo. The officers accused were looking for a suspected rapist when the saw Diallo in front of his Bronx home. Mr. Diaollo was then shot at 41 times, 16 of them killing him. The officers claimed that they fired so many shots because they mistakenly saw the slide of a black gun, when in actuality it was Amadou’s wallet. All four officers were acquitted of all 24 charges. Not one count of murder, manslaughter, homicide, or even reckless endangerment stuck (Chua-Eoan 24-27). Another example of this can be seen in the case of Abner Louima. After exiting a Brooklyn nightclub, Mr. Louima was arrested for allegedly assaulting officer Justin Volpe. He was then handcuffed and beaten in the back seat of the patrol car. When Louima reached the precinct officer Volpe then proceeded to sodomize him in the bathroom with the end of a plunger. Though Volpe later pleaded guilty, and officer Charles Schwarz was convicted for holding Louima down, officers Thomas Bruder and Thomas Wiese were found not guilty of beating up Louima in a patrol car, while Sgt. Michael Bellomo was acquitted on a charge of covering up the case. Though the case went unreported for over a year no one held responsible for the cover up (Feuer 6). These are the types of injustices that have been plaguing our nation for centuries.
The abuses described are preventable. Officers with long records of abuse, policies that are overly vague, training that is substandard, and screening that is inadequate all create opportunities for abuse. Perhaps most important, and consistently lacking, is a system of oversight in which supervisors hold their charges accountable for mistreatment and are themselves reviewed and evaluated, in part, by how they deal with subordinate officers who commit human rights violations. Those who claim that each high-profile case of abuse by a “rogue” officer is an aberration are missing the point: problem officers frequently persist because the accountability systems are so seriously flawed.
State, and federal officials are responsible for holding police officers accountable for abusive acts. Police officials must ensure that police officers are punished when they violate administrative rules, while state and federal prosecutors must prosecute criminal acts committed by officers, and where appropriate, complicity by their superior officers. Each of these entities applies different standards when reviewing officer responsibility for an alleged abuse. All of these authorities have an obligation to ensure that the conduct of police officers meets international standards that prohibit human rights violations and that; in general, the U.S. complies with the obligations imposed by those treaties to which it is a party. While only the federal government is responsible for reporting internationally on U.S. compliance with the relevant treaties, local and state officials share responsibility for ensuring compliance within their jurisdictions (Cohen) .
It is a bit ironic that the reason this country was founded was for the escape of religious and political prisoners. From the slave ships of the early seventeenth century to the inner city streets of America, human rights violations have been a plague on this great nation for centuries. Today with resent examples such as the Abner Louima, and Amadou Diallo cases it has finally surfaced as a major crisis. You would think with such blatant racism and brutality that the offending officers would be prosecuted immediately. This is not so in fact these men are protected by the establishment and some were set free. In fact many of them had the mayor himself defending them on national television, making a statement that these men were simply “doing their job”. With the millions of unreported cases and the code of silence within the precincts how will it ever become resolved? The fact is that this remains to be a problem within the minority community an unfortunately that means it will never get the full attention of the mainstream culture and will remain a stain on American society.
Feuer, Alan. “Detective Tells of His Torment Informing on His Peers in Louima Assault Case.” The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2000, late ed.: Section B; pg. 6
Chua-Eoan, Howard. “Black and Blue” Time, 6 March 2000: 24-27
Cohen, Adam “Gangsta Cop” Time, 6 March 2000: 30-34
Database of Abusive Police: http://www.doap.com/doap.com/