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Police Brutality: When the Law is NOT on Your Side


Most of us still vividly remember the images; others, just the famous quote: "Can't we all just get along?" The incident and ensuing trial caused a riot throughout the streets of Los Angeles. These are, of course, the events surrounding the beating of Rodney King by members of the LA Police Department, a beating captured on video by a horrified onlooker. Though the videotape clearly showed four officers surrounding King while swinging their batons at him as he lay on the ground, the four officers were not convicted in State Court.

This incident happened in Los Angeles, but it could have happened in any city in America. It is an example of police brutality, and reports from around the county indicate that this was not an isolated incident, but one that occurs with regularity. Police brutality is the excessive use of force in apprehending or detaining suspects. Sometimes the results can be fatal. Earlier this year in New York City, police shot an unarmed man because they mistook his keys for a weapon. According to Amnesty International, an organization working to protect human rights worldwide, the officer was never punished even though he had been involved in past fatal shootings of other unarmed suspects.

The police beating of Rodney King took place in 1992. Although it was an incredibly high profile case which shocked our entire nation, little has been done in the past eight years to decrease the level of police brutality that continues today. There are no exact statistics or tallies to count the many people who are affected by police brutality. Though government studies should be taking place, Congress has crippled the efforts by withholding funding, and so police brutality goes undocumented and unaddressed in many cases. Without the necessary national surveys of police brutality, we run the risk of inaccurately viewing these incidents as isolated.

There are over 17,000 police agencies in this country, each operating under its own rules of conduct. Nearly all of them agree that force should only be used as a last resort and some police departments are better at enforcing this than others. Even so, human rights groups have cited at least 14 American cities that have serious problems with the use of excessive force by their officers. They have also found that the victims of this abuse are disproportionately persons of color.

Two cities that have been in the news a lot in the past few years are New York and LA. In a case that angered a nation, police fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man, whom they thought had pulled a weapon on them. The "weapon" turned out to be his wallet. Once again, the officers were found innocent of wrongdoing. The New York Police Department has been cited repeatedly by civil rights groups and others as a human rights violator due to the objectionable conduct of some of its officers. The main offenders were a special unit of cops created to specialize in policing certain kinds of criminal activity. They usually had the toughest areas of the city that experienced the most homicides, and other violent crimes. While they were able to obtain some success in fighting crime, they also willfully ignored the basic constitutional rights of the citizens of New York. Due in part to the large numbers of complaints about their conduct, especially violent conduct, they were disbanded early this year.

As frightening as the situation is in New York, the situation in Los Angeles might be worse. In November of this year, four policemen were convicted of conspiring to frame innocent people for crimes. Their tactics included corroborating each other's false stories, planting evidence, and using physical abuse to coerce suspects into making false confessions. What is more shocking is that their supervisors not only knew about their actions, but actually condoned their behavior. This was just the latest wave of negative exposure for a department that has been riddled with scandal. For years, members of that city's sizable Latino and African-American populations have complained that police harass or detain them without cause, and that they regularly use excessive force. The department's response has been to defend itself. Citing the increasingly violent nature of criminals and the abundance of weapons on the streets, the LAPD maintains that officers are constantly in danger. These dangers, they claim, have required the use of force in order to keep officers alive.

In smaller cities like Providence, RI, or Minneapolis, MN, the problems are just as bad and sometimes worse, because they receive little to no exposure in the media. That is why it is so important that there are groups monitoring the abuse and trying to ensure the rights of all citizens. There are online groups such as www.doap.com which seek to record any unjust use of force by police. Other citizen groups have forced police departments to make changes, yielding positive results (for instance the Civilian Police Review Authority in Minneapolis). In some cities, officers are required to live in the cities they police. This holds them more accountable because they are part of the community. There are even police groups trying to curb the problem by working from the inside. These groups have made some significant improvements in punishing and preventing police brutality. Among other things, they have moved to institute more severe and consistent punishments for officers guilty of police brutality.

While the number of guns on the street today and the willingness of people to use them have intensified things a great deal, increased violence does not give police the right to assault suspects, and under no circumstance should police beat a suspect who has already been apprehended or detained, as is most often the case in instances of police brutality. The important thing to remember is that the police department represents the power of the State. Our constitution has made it expressly clear that this is a great responsibility not to be taken lightly. Police do put their lives on the line each day in what is one of the most dangerous professions, but there is no excuse for the use of excessive force by police officers. Because our taxes pay their salaries, we must hold them accountable for their actions. It is important that we give police the latitude to carry out their job, but once they put on the badge, they represent the Authority of the State, which is, in the end, you and me.

The Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Dred Scott: "a simple man who wanted to be free"
Rebecca - Friendly letters, wine and more at the start of a civil war?
Daphne - Bloodshed in Kansas: we're part of the war now, Toto
Neda - Mozart vs. Jay-Z and other reasons people go to war
Daphne - Abraham Lincoln: A log cabin boy wonder!