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 jail cell.

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, they say.

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 to.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor living in South Brunswick, NJ.

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