UNDERSTANDING COP ABUSE
Preventing Police Abuse
SOME OPERATING ASSUMPTIONS
THE BAD NEWS…..is that 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 — but it must be fought locally. The nation’s 19,000 law enforcement agencies are essentially independent. While some federal statutes that 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…..is that 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 realistic expectations. You must not expect too much of any one remedy because no single remedy will cure the problem. A “mix” of reforms is required. And even after civilian action has won reforms, your community must keep the pressure on through monitoring and oversight to ensure that the reforms are actually implemented.
Nonetheless, even one person, or a small group of persistent people, can make a big difference. Sometimes outmoded and abusive police practices prevail largely because no one has ever questioned them. In such cases, the simple act of spotlighting a problem can have a powerful effect that leads to reform. Just by raising questions, one person or a few people — who need not be experts — can open up some corner of the all-too-secretive and insular world of policing to public scrutiny. Depending on what is revealed, their inquiries can snowball into a full blown examination by the media, the public and politicians.
II. GETTING STARTED: IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM:
You’ve got to address specific problems. The first step, then, is to identify exactly what the police problems are in your city. What’s wrong with your police department is not necessarily the same as what’s wrong in another city. Police departments are different in size, quality of management, local traditions and the severity of problems. Some departments are gravely corrupt; others are relatively “clean” but have poor relations with community residents. Also, a city’s political environment, which affects both how the police operate and the possibilities for achieving reform, is different in every city. For example, it is often easier to reform police procedures in cities that have a tradition of “good government,” or in cities where minorities are well organized politically.
The range of police problems includes:
Excessive use of deadly force.
Excessive use of physical force.
Discriminatory patterns of arrest.
Patterns of harassment of such “undesirables” as the homeless, youth, minorities and gays, including aggressive and discriminatory use of the “stop-and-frisk” and overly harsh enforcement of petty offenses.
Chronic verbal abuse of civilians, including racist, sexist and homophobic slurs.
Discriminatory non-enforcement of the law, such as the failure to respond quickly to calls in low-income areas, and half-hearted investigations of domestic violence, rape or hate crimes.
Spying on political activists.
Employment discrimination — in hiring, promotion and assignments, and internal harassment of minority, women and gay or lesbian police personnel.
The “code of silence” and retaliation against officers who report abuse and/or support reforms.
Overreaction to “gang” problems, which is driven by the assumption that most or all associational activity is gang-related. This includes illegal mass stops and arrests, and demanding photo IDs from young men based on their race and dress instead of their criminal conduct.
The “war on drugs,” with its overboard searches and other tactics that endanger innocent bystanders. This “war” wastes scarce resources on unproductive “buy and bust” operations to the neglect of more promising community-based approaches.
Lack of accountability, such as the failure to discipline or prosecute abusive officers, and the failure to deter abuse by denying promotions and/or particular assignments because of prior abusive behavior.
Crowd control tactics that infringe on free expression rights and lead to unnecessary use of physical force.
III. GATHER THE FACTS
The first thing to bear in mind about the “homework” community residents have to do in order to build a strong case for reform is that obtaining the most relevant information on the activities of your police department can be a tough task. In answer to critics, police chiefs often cite various official data to support their claim that they are really doing a great job. “Look at the crime rate,” they say, “it’s lower than in other cities.” Or: “My department’s arrest rate is much higher than elsewhere.” The catch is that these data, though readily available to civilians, are deeply flawed, while the most telltale information is not always easy to get.
FORGET The “Crime Rate.” The “crime rate” figures cited by government officials are based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) system, which has several serious flaws. To name only a few: First, the UCR only measures reported crime.
Second, since the system is not independently audited there are no meaningful controls over how police departments use their crime data. Police officers can and do “unfounded” crimes, meaning they decide that no crime occurred. They also “downgrade” crimes — for example, by officially classifying a rape as an assault. Third, reports can get “lost,” either deliberately or inadvertently.
There are many other technical problems that make the UCR a dubious measure of the extent of crime problems. The National Crime Survey (NCS), published by another part of the U.S. Justice Department, provides a far more accurate estimate of the national crime rate and of long-term trends in crime. But it is a national-level estimate and does not provide data on individual cities. So the NCS isn’t much help on the local level.
FORGET The “Clearance Rate.” A police department’s official data on its “clearance rate,” which refers to the percentage of crimes solved, do not accurately reflect that department’s performance. The fact that one department “clears” 40 percent of all robberies, compared with 25 percent by another department, doesn’t necessarily mean it is more effective. There are too many ways to manipulate the data, either by claiming a larger number of crimes “cleared” (inflating the numerator), or by artificially lowering the number of reported crimes (lowering the denominator).
FORGET The arrest rate. Police officers have broad discretion in making and recording arrests. The Police Foundation (in Washington, D.C.), which conducts research on policing issues, has found great variations among police departments in their recording of arrests. In many departments, police officers take people into custody, hold them at the station, question and then release them without filling out an arrest report. For all practical purposes, these people were “arrested,” but their arrests don’t show up in the official data. Other departments record such arrests. Thus, the department that reports a lower number of arrests may actually be taking more people into custody than the department that reports more arrests.
FORGET The civilian complaint rate. Official data on the complaints filed by civilians regarding police conduct are important but present a number of problems. Many departments do not release any information on this subject. Some publish a smattering of information on complaints and the percentage of complaints sustained by the department. In more and more cities, the civilian review agency publishes this data.
Data on civilian complaints are difficult to interpret. Some examples: In 1990, it was widely reported that San Francisco, with less than 2,000 police officers, had more civilian complaints than Los Angeles, which has more than 8,000 officers. What that may mean, however, is that Los Angeles residents are afraid to file reports or don’t believe it would do any good. San Francisco has a relatively independent civilian review process, which may encourage the filing of more complaints. Also in 1990, New York City reported a decline from previous years in the number of civilian complaints filed. But many analysts believe that simply reflected New Yorkers’ widespread disillusionment with their civilian review board. Civilian complaints filed in Omaha, Nebraska doubled after the mayor allowed people to file their complaints at City Hall, as well as the police department.
Another problem is that in some police departments with internal affairs systems, officers often try to dissuade people from filing formal complaints that will later become part of an officer’s file. And the number of complaints counted is also affected by whether or not the internal affairs system accepts anonymous complaints and complaints by phone or mail, or requires in-person, sworn statements.
Thus, the official “complaint rate” (complaints per 1,000 civilians), rather than being a reliable measure of police performance, more than likely reflects the administrative customs of a particular police department.
WHAT YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW, AND WHY
Police shootings. You need to know about police firearms discharges, which refer to the number of times a police weapon has been fired. This information is more complete than statistics on the number of persons shot and wounded or killed. (However, information on the race of persons shot and wounded or killed is important.) Particularly important is information on repeat shooters, which can tell you whether some officers fire their weapons at a suspiciously high rate. With this information, you can evaluate the use of deadly force in your department. You can also evaluate the long-term trends in shootings. Are shootings increasing or decreasing? Has there been a recent upsurge? How does the department compare with other departments — are officers shooting at a significantly higher rate in your department than elsewhere?