HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Race as a Factor
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Race continues to play a central role in police brutality in the United States. In the cities we have examined where such data are available, minorities have alleged human rights violations by police more frequently than white residents and far out of proportion to their representation in those cities. Police have subjected minorities to apparently discriminatory treatment and have physically abused minorities while using racial epithets. Mistreatment may be non-violent harassment and humiliation, such as allegations of racial profiling in which drivers are temporarily detained often for driving in certain areas or for driving certain types of cars. At worst, it includes the kinds of extreme violence we feature in this report. Each new incident involving police mistreatment of an African-American, Hispanic-American or other minority - and particularly those that receive media attention - reinforces a general belief that some residents are subjected to particularly harsh treatment and racial bias.

Since the mid-1960s, incidents of real or perceived police abuse have sparked civil unrest, including costly and violent uprisings, and a lingering distrust between racial minority communities and the police. The thirty-year-old findings of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission), published in 1968, are still relevant:

    Almost invariably the incident that ignites disorder arises from police action. Harlem, Watts, Newark and Detroit - all the major outbursts of recent years - were precipitated by routine arrests of Negroes by white officers for minor offenses....[T]o many Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread perception among Negroes of the existence of police brutality and corruption, and of a "double standard" of justice and protection - one for Negroes and one for whites.39

Virtually the same conclusions relating to police-community tensions are found in the 1991 Christopher Commission report on Los Angeles, published in the aftermath of the notorious beating of Rodney King.40 The report stated: "Within minority communities of Los Angeles, there is a widely-held view that police misconduct is commonplace. The King beating refocused public attention to long-standing complaints by African-Americans, Latinos and Asians that Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers frequently treat minorities differently from whites, more often using disrespectful and abusive language, employing unnecessarily intrusive practices such as the `prone-out,' and engaging in use of excessive force when dealing with minorities." 41

These tensions helped spark Los Angeles's deadly and costly April 1992 disturbances in response to the acquittals of police in the Rodney King case. Fifty-four people were killed, 2,383 injured (221 critically), and 13,212 arrested; propertydamage was estimated at more than $700 million for the county.42 In less spectacular ways around the country, tensions mount with each new incident of publicized police brutality or corruption. Yet, in predictable cycles, as new abuses come to light, police administrative or court decisions remind the public that officers often avoid penalties for human rights violations they commit.

The 1991 Christopher Commission report and the 1992 St. Clair Commission report (examining Boston's police department) show that race still plays a central role in the use of excessive force.43 The St. Clair Commission report found that during the period studied, 50 percent of complainants in the sample group were African-American, while 26 percent of Boston's population was African-American.44 The impetus for the St. Clair report was the Stuart case, in which a white man reportedly murdered his pregnant wife and diverted suspicion by claiming the assailant had been a black man. His allegation led to round-ups and harassment of African-American men and to outrage once the truth was discovered, with many claiming a double standard.

The Christopher Commission in Los Angeles "also found that the problem of excessive force is aggravated by racism and bias...."45 The report described a survey finding that 25 percent of 650 officers responding agreed: "racial bias (prejudice) on the part of officers toward minority citizens currently exists and contributes to a negative interaction between police and the community....[and more than 25 percentagreed that] an officer's prejudice towards the suspect's race may lead to the use of excessive force."46 The report stated that the Los Angeles Police Department had practices and procedures conducive to discriminatory treatment and officer misconduct directed to members of minority groups. Witnesses repeatedly reported that officers verbally harassed minorities, detained African-American and Latino men who fit certain generalized descriptions of suspects, employed unnecessarily invasive or humiliating tactics in minority neighborhoods, and used excessive force.47

Each of the cities examined in this study has had serious abuse problems that have exacerbated racial tensions, including the May 1991 Mt. Pleasant (Washington, D.C.) uprising after an African-American officer, Angela Jewell, shot Salvadoran Daniel Enrique Gómez; the September 1997 alleged beating of African-American Jeremiah Mearday by white Chicago police officers; the January 1995 videotaped beating of African-American Corey West in Providence, R.I. by a white officer; or the July 1996 fatal shooting of African-American Nathaniel Gaines, Jr., who was unarmed, by white New York City Transit Officer Paolo Colecchia on a subway platform.

Recent, widely publicized cases highlight the way perceived instances of abuse can ignite a racially-charged atmosphere. In St. Petersburg, Florida, a white police officer, Jim Knight, shot and killed a black motorist, eighteen-year-old TyRon Lewis, on October 24, 1996. The officer claimed that Lewis's vehicle had lunged toward him.48 The shooting sparked rioting in a portion of the city, with twenty people arrested and eleven injured; two dozen buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged, at a cost estimated at $5 million. Three weeks later, rioting erupted again just hours after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Knight. Several citizens were injured, and an officer was shot in the leg; some one hundred more arson fires were set in houses and stores, causing an estimated $1 million in damages.49 City officials claimed that the second round of rioting was "calculated" and led by a militant blackgroup. But a subsequent investigation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights pointed to a "clique within the Police Department with a significant pattern of misconduct" as the primary problem between the police and community.50 On November 13, the day of the second round of violence in St. Petersburg, a similar scenario played itself out in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. White police Officer Jon Vojtas was acquitted by an all-white jury in the killing of black motorist Jonny Gammage in Brentwood, a predominantly white Pittsburgh suburb. Following the acquittal, there was a protest outside the courtroom, with chants reminiscent of the King case, "No justice, no peace."51 Vojtas later returned to the Brentwood police force.

Gammage had been driving in Brentwood in October 1995 when police officers pulled him over, claiming that he had been driving erratically. In a struggle with five officers after he emerged from his car, Gammage was subdued as officers pressed on his back and neck, suffocating him. He died at the scene. The case drew unusual attention because the victim was the cousin of a Pittsburgh Steelers football player, Ray Seals, a local celebrity, and he had been driving Seals's car at the time of the encounter. The trials of two other officers involved in the incident ended in mistrials in 1996 and 1997. 52

Similarly, the October 1996 acquittal of New York City police Officer Francis X. Livoti on charges of negligent homicide in the death of Anthony Baez, of Puerto Rican descent, sparked protests and led to heightened tensions and police alerts around the 46th Precinct in the Bronx, where Livoti was stationed. After the verdict, Baez's parents stated, "We learned that for Latinos and blacks, justice is not equal."53

39 The 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Report), (New York: Bantam Books, 1968) p. 206.

40 Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, July 9, 1991, (hereinafter Christopher Commission report).

41 Ibid., p. 70. "Proning-out" refers to the police practice of placing individuals who are being questioned on the street face down on the pavement.

42 James D. Delk, "Fires and Furies: The L.A. Riots," ETC Publications, Palm Springs, CA. 1995. Property damage was estimated to have exceeded $900 million in Lou Cannon, Official Negligence (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 347. In reaction to the verdict, protests that were sometimes violent also reportedly took place in Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, and Madison, Wisconsin.

43 Comprehensive studies examining police brutality generally, or the racial component specifically, are lacking. In addition to the studies of the police forces in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department cooperated with a brutality study and undergoes six-month audits funded by the county. See Kolts Commission, James G. Kolts, et al., Report of the Special Counsel on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (Los Angeles, 1992). There was also an independent study of Milwaukee's police department published in October 1991.

44 St. Clair Commission, Report of the Boston Police Department Management Review Committee, January 14, 1992, (hereinafter St. Clair Commission report). The study does not provide a breakdown comparing the percentage of those arrested who are African-American as distinct from other ethnic groups.

45 Christopher Commission report, foreword.

46 Ibid., p. 69.

47 Ibid., p. xii, see Los Angeles chapter.

48 Michael A. Fletcher, "State of emergency declared in St. Petersburg following riots," Washington Post, October 26, 1996. According to press reports, this was the sixth incident involving a St. Petersburg police officer shooting at a car during 1996.

49 "Authorities appeal for calm in St. Petersburg," Reuters, November 15, 1996, [Wire Service]; and telephone interview with St. Petersburg police department public affairs officer, April 15, 1997.

50 "Rights official sees danger from police," New York Times, February 28, 1997. Officer Knight was reportedly cleared of wrongdoing by the department, and in November 1997, the federal Justice Department announced that it would not prosecute. "No rights prosecution in killing by Fla. officer," Washington Post, November 4, 1997.

51 "White officer acquitted in death of black motorist in Pittsburgh," New York Times, November 14, 1996.

52 "2 officers face new trial in death of a black motorist," New York Times, October 12, 1997; Associated Press, "2d mistrial for officers charged in motorist's death," New York Times, December 14, 1997.

53 David Gonzalez, "Commentary: In Livoti case, `not innocent' is no comfort," New York Times, October 9, 1996.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch