HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Special Commissions and their Aftermath
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Just as predictable as new, outrageous cases of abuse or the failure to punish or prosecute officers who commit human rights violations are the commissions created to investigate problems of abuse. In 1981, for example, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published an important report on police abuse, titled Who is Guarding the Guardians?54 The commission held hearings, subpoenaed documents, and worked with experts in preparing its study. The report contains dozens of recommendations dealing with recruitment of new police officers, internal review of misconduct allegations, external review of abuse complaints, and compilation and dissemination of nationwide data regarding police abuse.

Seventeen years later, most of the recommendations made by the commission remain unrealized. All of the police departments examined by Human Rights Watch had flawed complaint systems and provided inadequate information to the public about how to file a complaint. Multilingual complaint forms, status notification to complainants, and proper maintenance and use of data relating to those complaints are still lacking. The Civil Rights Commission had recommended adequate internal affairs systems, meaningful external review mechanisms, and effective early warning systems for officers with repeated abuse complaints. None of the cities we examined has all of these mechanisms in place. The commission had noted, as well, that one major barrier to federal prosecution of police officers who commit human rights violations is the "specific intent" standard: prosecutors must prove that an officer specifically intended to deprive an individual of a constitutional right in order to win brutality cases. Yet in the seventeen years since the commission's report, neither Congress nor the Executive Branch of the federal government has actively pursued a revision of the statute.

Since the Civil Rights Commission report in 1981, a handful of comprehensive studies on police misconduct in particular cities have been published: in Los Angeles (Christopher Commission), Boston (St. Clair Commission), and New York (Mollen Commission).55 Investigators have held hearings, reviewed relevant police files, and produced piercing critiques of the police departments' shortcomings. In Boston, the scope of the report was limited, and many of the recommended reforms were long overdue and have been implemented. In New York and Los Angeles,implementation is still underway, with mixed results. In general, reports from special commissions or human rights groups receive serious attention initially, but that attention fades until new incidents remind citizens that reforms were not implemented as promised.

All of the commissions' studies revealed disturbing common threads. In addition to racial components and seriously flawed internal affairs units, described more fully below, the commissions emphasized that police departments tolerate abuse. The Mollen Commission stated: "As important as the possible extent of brutality, is the extent of brutality tolerance we found throughout the Department....[O]fficers seem fairly tolerant - both outwardly and inwardly - of occasional police brutality."56 The commission went on: "This tolerance, or willful blindness, extends to supervisors as well....[W]hen cops come to the stationhouse with a visibly beaten suspect...[supervisors] often do not question the story they hear."57

Serious failures on the part of high-ranking police officials were also noted. The Christopher Commission report found, for example: "[T]he failure to control these [repeatedly abusive] officers is a management issue that is at the heart of the problem. The documents and data that we have analyzed have all been available to the department; indeed, most of this information came from that source. The LAPD's failure to analyze and act upon these revealing data evidences a significant breakdown in the management and leadership of the Department."58 Similarly, the St. Clair Commission found "substantial problems in the leadership and management of the [Boston] Department...."59 Hubert Williams, the president of the Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, stated: "Most police chiefs are honest and have integrity, but they fail due to an ignorance of what is occurringin their own departments."60 Williams noted a "disconnect between policies and practices" within police departments.61

The Mollen Commission also described the important link between corruption and brutality, with brutality against citizens serving as a sort of "rite of passage" toward corruption. Some officers told the commission that brutality was how they first "crossed the line toward abandoning their integrity," and when the line was crossed without consequences, it was easier to abuse their authority in other ways.62 According to the commission, "....we found that cops did not simply become corrupt; they sometimes became corrupt and violent."63 In some cities, newer officers - who are most likely to be "tested" by corrupt fellow officers - are assigned to poor and minority neighborhoods. The victims in these brutality "rites of passage" would most commonly be minorities.

54 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, "Who is Guarding the Guardians?" (Washington D.C.: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, October 1981). In 1957, Congress established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as a bipartisan, independent agency to investigate civil rights complaints and to collect and disseminate information.

55 Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, July 7, 1994 (hereinafter Mollen Commission report).

56 Mollen Commission report, p. 49.

57 Ibid.

58 Christopher Commission report, p. iv.

59 St. Clair Commission report, p. i.

60 U.S. Department of Justice, Police Integrity: Public Service With Honor, National Institute of Justice and Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice), January 1997, p. 33.

61 Ibid.

62 Mollen Commission report, pp. 45-47.

63 Ibid., p. 45.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch