HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
“Problem” Officers
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As Human Rights Watch reviewed police abuse cases, it became apparent that there is a difference between an officer with a clean record and non-violent reputation who makes a mistake and hurts a civilian and an officer who has a long history of complaints and a reputation as a "problem." While all officers committing abuses must be disciplined appropriately, whether their use of force was simply unnecessary or malicious brutality, differing severities of abuse may require different approaches. Some officers should remain on the force after receiving retraining on specific tactics or counseling to deal with job frustration or other issues. Other officers should probably never have been hired, and it is questionable whether any amount of training or punishment would make them good, or even acceptable, police officers.

"Rogue" or problem officers - often called an aberration by police leaders fending off scandal - in fact account for a large percentage of abuse complaints and civil lawsuits. Yet internal affairs divisions generally fail to track problem officers or utilize early warning systems to identify those officers who are the subject of repeated complaints or legal actions. Although a handful of officers with a record of repeated acts of brutality can undermine the reputation of an entire police force, most of the departments examined by Human Rights Watch have failed to identify and take sufficient action to manage officers who repeatedly break departmental rules or, in some cases, the law.

Where they exist, most early-warning-system (or "at risk") reviews are triggered only after many complaints are lodged against an officer in a short period. Due to barriers to filing complaints and the code of silence, among other impediments, many problem officers are not identified. Civil lawsuits, even when they are found in favor of plaintiffs alleging serious violations, are usually not counted in the tallying of complaints. Thus, the detailed information they offer about abuses usually does not find its way into personnel files in most of the fourteen citiesreviewed.115 Further, as described below, it should be noted that in two consent decrees reached by the Justice Department with police departments exhibiting a "pattern or practice" of abuse, civil lawsuit data are required to be part of future, stronger oversight systems.

The St. Clair Commission summarized its concerns about the handling of "problem" officers in Boston:

    [O]ur review of IAD files revealed a disturbing pattern of allegations of violence toward citizens by a small number of officers. The failure to monitor and evaluate the performance of police officers - particularly those with established patterns of alleged misconduct - is a major deficiency in the management of the department and results in an unnecessarily dangerous situation....No police department and no community should tolerate a situation where officers with a long record of alleged misconduct, including some with histories of alleged physical abuse of citizens, remain on the street largely unidentified and unsupervised.116

According to the Christopher Commission: "[T]here is a significant number of officers in the LAPD who repetitively use excessive force against the public and persistently ignore the written guidelines of the Department regarding force."117 The police department in Los Angeles not only failed to deal with these; it often rewarded them with positive evaluations and promotions.118 Former LAPD Assistant Chief Jesse Brewer testified: "We know who the bad guys are. Reputations become well known, especially to the sergeants and then of course to lieutenants and captains in the areas....But I don't see anyone bring these people up...."119

115 A police-community agreement reached in Philadelphia in September 1996 should result in the use of civil liability information as part of that city's early warning system.

116 St. Clair Commission report, p. iv.

117 Christopher Commission report, foreword.

118 Ibid., p. iv.

119 Ibid., p, ix.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch