Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
New York is enjoying a dramatic drop in violent crime, with some attributing it to the police department's emphasis on more minor, "quality of life," crimes, such as graffiti, squeegee windshield washing, and subway turnstile-jumping, pursued as a way to demonstrate control of the streets and to apprehend individuals who may have outstanding arrest warrants against them.1 Civil rights advocates in the city note, however, that there has been a cost to the new strategy, revealed by steady citizen complaints against more aggressive NYPD officers during the past several years and continuing impunity for many officers who commit human rights violations despite the recent reorganization of both the civilian review board and the police department's internal affairs bureau. Police abuse experts have wondered why, if the police leadership is eager to stop crime by aggressively pursuing minor criminals and crimes, it is failing to demonstrate the same aggressiveness in dealing with officers before they commit more serious offenses. In August 1997, after the alleged torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by police officers made national headlines and outraged city residents, the anti-crime record of the mayor and police department was tarnished. In uncharacteristic fashion, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir condemned the officers implicated in the incident as well as those who reportedly did nothing to stop it or report it.2 These were welcome condemnations, but conflicted with the mayor's persistent and seemingly automatic defense of officers accused of abusive treatment - even when he lacked a factual basis to do so - in his first term. Following the Louima incident, Commissioner Safir repeatedly stated that the alleged attack was not police brutalitybut instead was a crime, thus failing to recognize that brutality that is not of the notoriety of torture is a crime as well.3
There is often a racial or ethnic component to police abuse cases in New York City, with many incidents also fueled by language barriers and miscommunication in the culturally diverse city. In the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board's (CCRB) semiannual report for the first half of 1997, African-Americans and Latinos filed 78 percent of complaints against the police.4 The police force is 68 percent white.5 According to 1990 census figures, African-Americans made up 28.7 percent of the city's population and Hispanics made up 24 percent.6
The CCRB is, on paper, one of the strongest civilian review mechanisms in the country. In practice, however, the review board had only a 4 percent average substantiation rate between July 1993 and December 1996.7 Even when it does sustain complaints against officers, it has no power to ensure that appropriate disciplinary actions are taken, because that power is left entirely with the police department, which may or may not choose to accept and act upon the board's findings. During the independent CCRB's first three-and-a-half years, only 1 percent of all cases disposed of led to the disciplining of a police officer, and out of 18,336 complaints, there has been just one dismissal of an officer stemming from a CCRB-substantiated case.8 Preliminary data regarding the first six months of 1997indicated an increase in fully investigated complaints and a higher substantiation rate.9
Traditionally, the department has also been unwilling to acknowledge shortcomings and instead dismisses any criticisms as unfounded or as merely "anecdotal." For example, when Amnesty International published a detailed report about serious abuses and structural flaws in dealing with misconduct and brutality in the NYPD in June 1996, the official response was that it was "not a real analysis....short on facts," because it relied on the accounts of victims, their attorneys and press accounts.10 The accounts of victims, however, cannot be so easily disregarded; and if official data were lacking, this was because the department as a general rule refuses to release information about police misconduct and disciplinary response.
Even when the mayor himself asked a task force to review police-community issues following the alleged beating and torture of Abner Louima, he immediately criticized the task force's majority report: "Some of the things [recommended] we've already done. Some of the things I've opposed in the past, I'll continue to oppose them. And some of the things are unrealistic and make very little sense."11 Among the recommendations in the majority report were the elimination of the forty-eight hour delay allowed for officers under investigation; the creation of an auditor position to review the performance of the CCRB and to improve cooperation by the police department with the CCRB; enhanced screening of police recruits; bi- or multi-lingual receptionists in precincts that have a large number of residents who do not speak English; and requiring officers to live in the city in an effort to improve diversity, and cultural awareness, on the force. The mayor complained that the task force had ignored the drop in crime in the city. Later, the mayor softened his response somewhat, but his reaction appeared to be extremely counterproductive and may have lost him support from the task force - made up of activists, clergymembers, community leaders and attorneys - who had made an effort to provide the mayor with useful recommendations.12
Department and city leaders also respond to any criticism by stating that, in a force the size of New York's, 38,000 strong, you will always have some officers who do not follow the rules. This utterly misses the question most human rights activists pose: How does the department deal with officers who commit human rights violations, and those likely to commit abuses? If the studies by civil rights groups and the Mollen Commission are any indication, officers who commit abuses are not being dealt with adequately.
1 The "quality of life" tactics are combined with the use of a computerized monitoring system, known as "Compstat" to focus on problem crime areas and evaluate the department's performance.
2 Mayor Giuliani also announced the creation of a task force to deal with community relations between police and residents.
3 For example, during a television interview, Commissioner Safir stated, "...it is a crime committed by criminals. I mean, it's criminals who happen to be wearing police uniforms. But this is, for my view, this is not police brutality. I mean this goes far beyond the place of police brutality...." ABC Good Morning America, August 18, 1997.
4 CCRB semiannual report, January - June 1997, pp. 61-62.
5 Statement of Police Commissioner Howard Safir before the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, October 29, 1997.
6 In December 1997, a study describing the 1996 racial and ethnic composition of New York City found that Hispanics made up 26.6 percent of the city's population, and that blacks made up 26.2 percent.
7 New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) report: a fourth anniversary overview of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, July 5, 1993 - July 5, 1997.
9 NYCLU report, September 1997, p. 7.
10 Clifford Krauss, "Rights group finds abuse of suspects by city police," New York Times, June 26, 1996.
11 Dan Barry, "Giuliani dismisses police proposals by his task force," New York Times, March 27, 1998. There was also a minority report, authored by three, of the thirty-one, members of the task force who reportedly believed the task force's majority report was inadequate. Among other recommendations, the minority report called for the creation of an independent special prosecutor's office.
12 Ibid., Alan Finder, "At the heart of report on police, some modest proposals," New York Times, March 28, 1998; John Marzulli, "Mayor, Safir ready to fulfill some cop task force wishes," New York Daily News, April 16, 1998; Nat Hentoff, "Police brutality and the mayor," Village Voice, May 5, 1998.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch