HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Political Considerations and Aggressive Policing
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Efforts to improve police accountability are undermined by the actions of some police unions and organizations that legally challenge citizen review agencies. These groups publicly deny all allegations against police officers, even those they know are brutal; encourage noncooperation with investigators and the "code of silence" when allegations arise; and in approximately half of the fifty U.S. states have obtainedspecial bills of rights for law enforcement officers that make it more difficult to discipline or dismiss officers who commit human rights violations.31

Public officials, whether mayors, city council members or local prosecutors, are elected officials and subject to public scrutiny.32 These officials often rely on the support and endorsement of politically powerful police unions for re-election and are loath to offend the unions' members. Their hesitancy to condemn police abuse or prosecute violators of human rights is reinforced when crime rates go down, as has happened in several major cities where "aggressive" policing has been implemented, even when brutality complaints rise at the same time.

After an apparently successful experiment in New York City beginning in 1994, aggressive "quality of life" policing (with reduced tolerance of non-violent or petty crimes) is being copied in many cities around the United States. Police officials and their supporters contend that this approach naturally leads to an increase in complaints of abuse, as officers question and apprehend more individuals. Or, as a caller to New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put it, "Crime is down. If the police have to kick a little butt to make the city safer, so be it."33 Among those who dispute this assumption is a former Washington, D.C. police chief who testified in 1992 that, as an officer, he had made the highest number of arrests on the force and was never the subject of an abuse complaint, demonstrating that you can be aggressive without attracting complaints of brutality.34

There is no denying that police-community relations have suffered in minority neighborhoods, where some residents initially welcomed the enhanced police presence but eventually complained that aggressive policing often translates intoharassment. In New York, complaints citywide rose more than 37 percent from 1993 to 1994, after the new police "quality of life" initiatives took hold. Said one New Yorker, "They [the police] will bother you just for looking at them....[They] throw you against the car and start searching you like you're a criminal."35 By the end of 1996, complaints had reportedly increased by 56 percent from the 1993 level.36 To his credit, Police Commissioner Howard Safir initiated a program teaching courtesy, professionalism and respect ("CPR") in response to the rise in complaints. The program attempts to hold police commanders responsible for citizen complaints. Following the August 1997 Abner Louima incident (during which Louima claims officers tortured him by beating him and sodomizing him with a wooden stick in the bathroom of a Brooklyn police station), there was a sharp increase in the number of citizen complaints filed, but the 1997 total was lower than in previous years.37 In any event, complaints are still being filed at a higher rate than prior to the initiation of "quality of life" policing.38

31 According to the National Association of Police Organizations, "Position Paper on a federal law enforcement officers' bill of rights," January 1997. NAPO is the leading police lobbying group in Washington. The paper states that the passage of a federal Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights is its number one legislative priority.

32 District attorneys are elected in all of the cities examined by Human Rights Watch except Washington, D.C., where there is no such office. Providence, Rhode Island does not have a local prosecutor, but the state's attorney general is elected.

33 Bob Herbert, "Good Cop, Bad Cop," New York Times, March 23, 1997.

34 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Cities: Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination, The Mt. Pleasant Report, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, January 1993), p. 34. As described in the Washington, D.C. chapter, former Chief Soulsby resigned amid allegations of misconduct unrelated to brutality.

35 Garry Pierre-Pierre, "Examining a jump in police brutality complaints," New York Times, February 22, 1995.

36 Jane H. Lii, "When the saviors are seen as sinners," New York Times, May 18, 1997.

37 "Complaints against police found to be undercounted," New York Times, December 11, 1997.

38 Similarly, police abuse experts in New Orleans have noted a jump in complaints alleging police misconduct following the initiation of "quality of life" policing in that city.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch