HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
New York:

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As with most major U.S. cities, New York's police department has gone through cycles of scandal involving corruption and the use of excessive force. A widely respected reformer, Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy, attempted during the early 1970s to hold supervisors responsible for the abuses of officers under their control and to implement an early warning system to help identify officers who have committed human rights violations. His efforts followed the 1972 Knapp Commission report exposing major corruption. Yet many of the reforms he instituted - and the accountability goals he articulated - faded after his departure in 1973.

The department soon returned to its notoriously self-protective ways, with officers involved in misconduct often intimidating bystanders and witnesses. Crowd control situations, such as the Tompkins Square Park encounter between protesters and police in August 1988, were often handled with excessive force. In that incident, after protesters allegedly threw items at mounted police officers attempting to clear the park, police reacted by beating anyone nearby with their nightsticks, including uninvolved restaurant patrons and business owners. The encounter was captured on videotape, forcing officials to acknowledge that the police behavior was "appalling."13 But, even though more than 120 civilian complaints were filed about the incident, the police department's CCRB faced great difficulty in pursuing charges against the involved officers because it was met with a wall of silence. In the end, administrative charges were presented in seventeen cases, with officers disciplined in thirteen of them.

Many of the Knapp Commission's issues of concern resurfaced again in the early 1990s, as a new corruption scandal emerged. Officers primarily from the 30th, 9th, 46th, 75th and 73rd precincts were caught selling drugs and beating suspects.14 To look into the allegations, Mayor David Dinkins appointed a commission, headed by Judge Milton Mollen. During hearings in 1993-94, officers came forward to acknowledge that they had become something of a vigilante squad with financial motives. Officer Bernie Cawley was asked if the people he acknowledged beating were suspects and he replied, "No. We'd just beat people in general."15 Cawley reportedly said he had used his sap gloves (lead-loaded gloves), flashlight, and nightstick as many as 400 times just "to show who was in charge."16 If victims expressed interest in complaining, he would tell them that it would take three hours to type their complaint. Another officer testified that some officers kept guns seized during raids and used them as "throwaway" guns to plant on a suspect in the event of a questionable arrest or police shooting to make it appear the suspect was armed.17 Concluded Cawley, "They [residents] hate the police. You'd hate the police too if you lived there."18

The Mollen Commission report, published in July 1994, described an internal accountability system that was flawed in most respects. It also described the nexus between corruption and brutality, and urged a plan to combat both problems.

    When connected to acts of corruption, brutality is at times a means to accomplish corrupt ends and at other times it is just a gratuitous appendage to a corrupt act....[C]ops have used or threatened to use brutality to intimidate their victims and protect themselves against the risk of complaints.19 We found that officers who are corrupt are more likely to be brutal....20

    Officers also told us that it was not uncommon to see unnecessary force used to administer an officer's own brand of street justice: a nightstick to the ribs, a fist to the head, to demonstrate who was in charge of the crime-ridden streets they patrolled and to impose sanctions on those who "deserved it" as officers, not juries, determined. As was true of other forms of wrongdoing, some cops believe they are doing what is morally correct - though "technically unlawful" - when they beat someone who they believe is guilty and who they believe the criminal justice system will never punish.21

What emerged was a picture of how everyday brutality corrupted relations among police officers and city residents. The Mollen Commission heard from officers who admitted pouring ammonia on the face of a detainee in a holding cell and from another who threw garbage and boiling water on someone hiding in a dumbwaiter shaft. Another officer allegedly doctored an "escape rope" used by drug dealers so they would plunge to the ground if they used it, and the same group also raided a brothel while in uniform, ordered the customers to leave, and terrorized and raped the women there.22 Mollen found: "...[B]rutality, regardless of the motive, sometimes serves as a rite of passage to other forms of corruption and misconduct. Some officers told us that brutality was how they first crossed the line toward abandoning their integrity."23 Officer Michael Dowd testified, "[Brutality] is a form of acceptance. It's not just simply giving a beating. It's [sic] the other officers beginto accept you more."24 Officers Cawley and Dowd described hundreds of acts of brutality they had engaged in; yet apparently no fellow officer had filed a complaint about either one of them.25

"As important as the possible extent of brutality," noted the commission's report, "is the extent of brutality tolerance we found throughout the Department....[T]his tolerance, or willful blindness, extends to supervisors as well. This is because many supervisors share the perception that nothing is really wrong with a bit of unnecessary force and because they believe that this is the only way to fight crime today."26 Internal review was equally corrupted. The Internal Affairs Division was not helpful in identifying problems, and removed especially sensitive cases and placed them in a "tickler file," making each problem appear an aberration. Despite many officers' criminal behavior, their personnel files repeatedly showed that they had "met standards," and they thus avoided scrutiny altogether. Officers who were caught lying were not disciplined and were taught by supervisors how to present false testimony in court.

In reaction to the Mollen Commission report, then-Police Commissioner William Bratton stated that if officers behaved properly, he would back them absolutely, but if they used unnecessary force, "all bets are off."27 Yet, when Walter Mack, a civilian deputy commissioner in charge of internal affairs, pushed for the creation of a special anti-brutality unit that would be available twenty-four hours a day to investigate allegations promptly, and also took a tough stance on police perjury, he was forced out of the department in 1995.28

As of early 1998, Mollen Commission recommendations relating to recruiting, scrutiny during probation, integrity training, and improved supervision have generally been implemented.29 The police unions continue to oppose stricter disciplinary measures and the commission's call for changes in the police union's response to allegations of corruption and brutality, such as emphasizing integrity, reportedly have not been heeded.

13 Paul Chevigny, Edge of the Knife (New York: The New Press, 1995), p. 76.

14 The corruption scandal reportedly resulted in nearly one hundred convictions against seventy defendants being thrown out due to police perjury. With approximately fifteen lawsuits still pending, the city has already paid $2 million in civil settlements to perjury victims. David Kocieniewski, "Man framed by police officers wins payments," New York Times, February 12, 1998.

15 Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, July 7, 1994, hereinafter "Mollen Commission report," p. 48. The Mollen Commission report cited hundreds of acts of brutality claimed by Cawley, yet only one complaint from a citizen, and none from fellow officers, was ever filed. Ibid.

16 Malcolm Gladwell, "Ex-policeman says he attacked people," Washington Post, September 30, 1993.

17 Mollen Commission report, p. 28.

18 Ibid; Tom Hays, "Commission told rogue officers kept guns to plant on suspects," Associated Press, September 29, 1993, [Wire Service].

19 Mollen Commission report, p. 45.

20 Ibid., p. 46.

21 Ibid., p. 47.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Dowd reportedly had been the subject of more than twenty citizen complaints, some alleging excessive force, in the four or five years prior to his criminal charges, but the complaints were found "not sustained" by the CCRB. Affidavit of James J. Fyfe, Ph.D., April 2, 1997, in United States of America v. City of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, and Department of Public Safety, USDC Western District of Pennsylvania, Civil No. 97-0354, April 16, 1997.

26 Mollen Commission report, p. 49.

27 Editorial, New York Times, May 5, 1994.

28 Clifford Krauss, "Bratton Assailed on Ouster of Top Official," New York Times, January 29, 1995; Leonard Levitt, "Cop monitor out," New York Newsday, January 28, 1995. At the time, Commissioner Bratton claimed Mack was being dismissed because he was not a good administrator.

29 According to police abuse expert Prof. James J. Fyfe, who has studied the department's reform efforts. Several botched police raids during 1998 raised serious questions about improved training and about the department's stated efforts to improve courtesy, professionalism, and respect. The officers apparently raided the wrong apartments and humiliated their occupants by using racial epithets and dressing a man in woman's clothing before taking him to a station house and, in another case, handcuffing a woman who was eight months pregnant and only partially dressed; she was so frightened by the experience that she reportedly urinated but the officers did not allow her to put on dry clothes for two hours. Bob Herbert, columns, "Day of humiliation," March 8, 1998; "A cop's view," New York Times, March 15, 1998.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch