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Police Brutality is Most Serious Rights Violation in U.S.

by Jim Lobe

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Police brutality, particularly against minorities, is one of the "most serious, enduring, and divisive human rights violations in the United States," according to a report released on July 7 by Human Rights Watch.

The 440-page report -- two and a half years in the making -- says police officers engage in "unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and unnecessarily rough physical treatment in cities throughout the United States."

Moreover, their superiors and others who are mandated to punish or even report such behavior "fail to act decisively to restrain or penalize such acts," according to the report, "Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States."

Unwritten "code of silence" to protect bad cops
Racial and ethnic minorities are particularly abused, according to Allyson Collins, the report's main author. "Judging from anecdotal evidence and the data that do exist, some police officers have serious problems dealing with members of minority communities," she said.

The report is based on research conducted in 14 cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

In all of these, it details what Collins calls "common failings" in the way police departments and prosecutors deal with officers who commit abuses. The report says that habitually brutal officers usually make up only a small percentage of a given city's police force, but that they usually receive protection from a system that fails to make them accountable for their behavior.

In many cases, HRW researchers document evidence of an unwritten "code of silence" under which officers will not incriminate colleagues -- nor testify against them -- even after allegations of abuse have surfaced. "In such a climate, officers who commit abuses flourish," the report says.

Blue-ribbon commissions, formed to look into police brutality after particularly egregious cases -- such as the notorious video-taped beating by police of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King in 1991 -- have made similar findings.

The actual cost of police abuse is nothing less than "monumental," HRW adds. Cities have lost tens of millions of dollars in recent years in lawsuits brought by victims of brutality. Despite these awards and the adverse publicity they create, the problem has been remarkably persistent, the report notes.

It also notes the "central role" played by race in police brutality in the United States. In all cities where such data are recorded, minorities complain far more frequently against alleged abuses by police than do white residents -- and far out of proportion to their share of the general population.

"Mistreatment may be non-violent harassment and humiliation, such as allegations of racial profiling in which drivers are temporarily detained often for driving in certain areas or for driving certain types of cars," the report states. "At worst, it includes...extreme violence."

Each incident tends to reinforce the belief by minorities that they are targets of abuse -- a belief that has historically sparked major outbursts of violence against the police.

Thirty years ago, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which studied the riots which engulfed inner cities throughout the United States during the summer of 1967, wrote, "(T)o many Negroes, police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes."

Writing 23 years later in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, the Christopher Commission (named for its chairman, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher) came to the same conclusion -- adding, however, that Latinos and Asians in Los Angeles, as well as African-Americans, believe that police officers "frequently treat minorities differently from whites, more often using disrespectful and abusive language, employing unnecessarily intrusive practices...and engaging in use of excessive force when dealing with minorities."

After an all-white jury in 1992 exonerated the police officers involved in the King beating, Los Angeles exploded in violence. During several days of turmoil, 54 people were killed, 221 more were critically injured, and 13,200 were arrested. Property damage was estimated at more than $700 million.

No governmental entity has collected data
The report notes that international human rights monitors also have expressed concern about police abuse. These include the Human Rights Committee, established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, who focused a 1997 report on New York City and Los Angeles.

Victims of police brutality in the United States have a number of options for pursuing their claims, including citizen review agencies; internal affairs units of police departments; criminal prosecution; and civil lawsuits.

But victims usually find barriers in their efforts to gain justice. Review boards, where they exist, often are "overwhelmed and understaffed;" internal affairs units operate with "excessive secrecy" (in some cities, they even refused to provide basic information to Human Rights Watch) and often fail to punish officers in the few cases in which they find abuse; and local prosecutors often put the requirements of justice second -- after their interests in maintaining a good relationship with the police.

The report also bemoans the federal government's failure to pursue cases when local authorities fail to do so -- except in the most flagrant instances of abuse -- and to submit a report to Congress, requested four years ago in order to ascertain the dimension of the problem, on the prevalence of excessive force by police officers.

As a result, says Collins, "its difficult to quantify the scope of the problem of abuse because no governmental entity has collected data. What we do know is that it is a persistent problem that won't go away until officials deal seriously with it."

Among other measures, Human Rights Watch is urging Congress to condition the billions of dollars in federal funding provided to local police departments on their achieving demonstrable progress in implementing reforms aimed at identifying abuses, tracking abusive officers throughout their careers, and creating more effective mechanisms for redress.

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Albion Monitor July 13, 1998 (

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