BRINGING LOCAL POLICE DEPARTMENTS & THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER TO STOP THE KILLING
- Category: Justice
- Published: Sunday, 08 March 2015 19:36
- Written by Rev. Dr. Henry Vernon
by Rev. Dr. Henry Vernon
This past weekend I was invited to a "Prayer Breakfast" hosted by the City of Kissimmee, the local Sheriff and Police Departments of Kissimmee & St. Cloud and the local NAACP Chapter of which I am the pass president. Consequently, I decided that I would do some research in order to be able to contribute to this effort and hopefully affect the change the is needed on both sides of this issue. The following is just some of the information and facts I was able to uncover prior to my attending, I hope it will help you in your community. I stop short of telling you "Where to get the information and How."
SOME OPERATING ASSUMPTIONS
THE BAD NEWS is...
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. Yet it must be fought locally: the nation's 19,000 law enforcement agencies are essentially independent.
While some federal statutes 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...
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 citizen 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.
GETTING STARTED — IDENTIFY 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 that of another city. Police departments differ in size, quality of management, local traditions and the severity of their 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 racial minorities are well organized politically.
The range of police problems includes —
1) Excessive use of deadly force.
2) Excessive use of physical force.
3) Discriminatory patterns of arrest.
4) Patterns of harassment of the homeless, youth, racial minorities and gays, including aggressive and discriminatory use of the "stop-and-frisk" and overly harsh enforcement of petty offenses.
5) Chronic verbal abuse of citizens, including racist, sexist and homophobic (irrational hatred and disapproval) slurs.
6) 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.
7) Spying on political activists.
8) Employment discrimination — in hiring, promotion and assignments, and internal harassment of minority, women and gay or lesbian police personnel.
9) The "code of silence" and retaliation against officers who report abuse and/or support reforms.
10) Overreaction to gang problems, which is driven by the assumption that those who associate with known gang members must be involved in criminal activity, even in the absence of concrete evidence that this is the case. This includes illegal mass stops and arrests, and demanding photo IDs from young men based on their race and dress instead of on their criminal conduct.
11) The "war on drugs," with its overbroad 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.
12) 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.
13) Crowd control tactics that infringe on free expression rights and lead to unnecessary use of physical force.
GATHER THE FACTS
Obtaining the most relevant information on the activities of your police department can be a tough
task. That's the first thing to bear in mind about the "homework" community residents have to do in order to build a strong case for reform. 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 citizens, are deeply flawed, while the most important 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 "unfound" 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 citizen complaint rate. Official data on the complaints filed by citizens 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, a civilian review agency publishes this data.
Data on citizen 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 citizen 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 citizen complaints filed. But many analysts believe that simply reflected New Yorkers' widespread disillusionment with their civilian review board. Citizen complaints filed in Omaha, Nebraska doubled after the mayor allowed people to file their complaints at City Hall, as well as at 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 citizens), 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
A. Police shootings. You need to know about police firearm 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 data on repeat shooters, which can tell you whether some officers fire their weapons at a suspiciously high rate.
POLICE SHOOTINGS — A CLOSER LOOK
• Do some officers shoot more often than others?
• Do white officers shoot more often that black officers?
• Do young officers shoot more often than veteran officers?
The most detailed analysis of police shootings was produced by James Fyfe, a former police officer who is now a criminologist and expert on police practices. He concluded that the single most important factor determining patterns of shooting is place of assignment.
Fyfe's findings showed that: Black and white officers assigned to similar precincts fired their weapons at essentially the same rate; since new officers are assigned to less desirable, high crime precincts based on the seniority system, younger officers shoot more often than older officers; and since a disproportionate number of black officers are young due to recent affirmative action programs, black officers shoot more often than white officers — but as a function of assignment, not race.
Fyfe found significant differences in shooting patterns between police departments. The overall shooting rate in some departments was significantly higher than in others, a disparity that he attributed to differences in department policy.
SOURCE: James J. Fyfe, "Who Shoots? - - A Look At Officer, Race And Police Shooting."Journal of Police Science And Administration; Volume 9, December 1981; pp. 367-382.
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?
B. Use of physical force. You need to know how frequently police officers in your city use physical force in the day-to-day course of their encounters with citizens. Do officers try to refrain from using such force against citizens, or do they quickly and casually resort to force?
In its report on the Los Angeles Police Department in the aftermath of the March 1991 beating of Rodney King, the Christopher Commission confirmed a long held suspicion: A small number of officers were involved in an extraordinarily high percentage of use-of-force incidents. Ten percent of the officers accounted for 33.2 percent of all use-of-force incidents. The Commission was able to identify 44 such officers who were not disciplined despite the fact that they were the subjects of numerous citizen complaints.
In 1981, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found a similar pattern in Houston and recommended, as a remedy, that police departments establish "early warning systems" to identify officers with high rates of citizen complaints. Patterns in the use of physical force reveal a lot about the "culture" of a particular police department. Clearly, a department whose officers repeatedly engage in physically coercive conduct needs reform. Police officials often deny that their personnel are prone to using force inappropriately, so if your community believes it has a problem in this area citizens must be able to support their claims with existing data, or data they have gathered themselves.
C. Official policies. You need to know what your local police department's formal, written policies are on how officers are supposed to behave in particular situations. How does the department treat domestic violence complaints? What is the policy on how officers are supposed to deal with homeless people? Does the department use canine patrols and, if so, under what circumstances?
In examining official policies, you need to evaluate them in comparison to recommended standards.
D. Lawsuits. You need to know how many lawsuits citizens have filed against your local police department. You'll want to know what the charges were, the number of officers involved, whether certain officers are named repeatedly in suits, what was the outcome and, in the case of successful suits, how much the city paid in damages.
The number of lawsuits filed against a police department can be very revealing. For example, according to the Christopher Commission the taxpayers of Los Angeles spent $67.5 million between 1991 and 1995 to resolve lawsuits brought by victims of police abuse. In 1990 alone, New York City paid victims of police misconduct a record high of more than $13 million. This kind of information can be used to mobilize middle-class taxpayers and "good-government" activists, who can then be brought into a community coalition against police abuse.
RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IN POLICE SHOOTINGS
These data indicate a clear pattern of racial discrimination. The disparity between whites and blacks shot and killed is extreme in the category of persons "unarmed and not assaultive."
POLICE SHOOTINGS IN MEMPHIS 1969-1974
Person Shot and Killed Number Shot and Killed
Armed and Assaultive 5 7
Unarmed and Assaultive 2 6
Unarmed and Not Assaultive 1 13
These are classic "fleeing felon" situations in which, prior to 1985, Memphis Police Department policy and the common law of many states permitted officers to use deadly force. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a police officer to shoot a suspected felon in flight who does not pose an immediate danger to the officer or public. The case — Tennessee v. Garner— involved Edward Garner, a 15 year-old black youth who, though unarmed, was shot and killed while trying to flee the scene of a suspected burglary.
SOURCE: James J. Fyfe, "Blind Justice: Police Shootings in Memphis," Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 73 (1982, No. 2); pp. 707-722.
E. Minority employment. You'll need to know how many African Americans, Latinos, Asians, other minorities and women are employed by your police department and their distribution throughout the department's ranks. This information is useful in assessing, again, the "culture" of your local police department — is it internally diverse, fair and equitable? It also suggests how much value the department places on the "human relations" aspects of its work, and how responsive it is to community concerns.
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