Topic: Police Brutality in the United States
Academic level: College
Police Brutality in the United States
Unacceptable and illegal police behavior appears to be pandemic. Over the past 50 years, there has been a growing awareness of the problem and a corresponding concern about the inability of police-controlled systems to deal with citizens’ complaints. In essence, there was a growing public perception that while police enforced the law, they did not believe that it should apply to them (Lewis, 1999, p. 19).
Broadly speaking, police are able to stop, question, detain, and arrest people. They can search and seize their property, conduct intimate body searches, and use force to control a situation. Police have the power to deprive people of their freedom, autonomy, and dignity. These potentially oppressive powers are granted to police in order to regulate and protect society in general and peoples’ individual rights in particular. However, they are formally required to do so according to the law and to abide by the procedural rules and policies laid down by society (Lewis, 1999, p.19).
Deviant police behaviors can be categorized into four types: police crime, occupational deviance, corruption, and abuse of authority. Police crime includes those acts where the officer's authority and police officer assisted the commission of crime. Occupational deviance is akin to police crime, but the acts (ticket fixing, strip-searching females in custody, abusing a prisoner) probably could not have been com?mitted by anyone not employed in the police occupation. Corruption involves the potential for personal gain and the use of police power and authority to further that gain. Abuse of authority refers to the mistreatment and/or violation of human and legal rights by the officials possessing police authority (Conser, 2011, p. 224).
Recently, there has been much attention paid to the corruption of police. However, police corruption is not a new problem and dates back to the establishment of the first organized local police forces. Historically, police corruption involved such low-level and jussive activities as bribery schemes and no enforcement of the law. Today, the prominent issues at hand are police brutality and drug-related police corruption (Shanty, 2008, p. 171).
The sampling of recent episodes of corruption since 1990 in the police departments of three major cities (New York City, Los Angeles, and New Orleans) demonstrates that corruption is alive. These cities provide a good cross section of the United States in terms of both police agencies and corruption sampling. Corruption in each of these cities has been known to consist of brutality, bribery, and extortion (Shanty, 2008, p. 171).
Throughout New York City's history of policing, its department over the years has repeatedly been rocked by high-profile police corruption scandals. The most prevalent form of police corruption in New York City is their commission of crimes connected with the illegal drug trade. Between 1992 and 1996, federal and city investigations and prosecutions led to the convictions of thirty officers for primarily narcotics-related offenses. The New York City Law Department reported that police misconduct, such as excessive force, assault, and shootings by police, cost city taxpayers more than $44 million for fiscal years 1994 and 1995 (Shanty, 2008, p. 171).
Unlike prosecutions of police for drug-related incidents, grand juries often decline to indict officers of brutality-related charges. Between 1992 and 1995, ninety-four cases were decided, with only nineteen leading to prosecution (Shanty, 2008, p. 171).
When speaking about the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), one can mention its entanglement in drug-related offenses and highly publicized incidents of police brutality. Unfortunately, criminal prosecution of police for alleged brutality is extremely rare in Los Angeles. According to the Internal Affairs Croups commander, at most one officer a year is prosecuted for an on-duty abuse-related incident. The LAPD is now under a federal consent decree to implement reforms and changes. A federal judge ruled in May 2006 that the department has made progress in eliminating racial discrimination and corruption (Shanty, 2008, p. 172).
The police department in New Orleans had more than its share of corruption and brutality. New Orleans had the highest ranking of citizen complaints of police brutality in the country. In addition, at least 50 of the 1,400-member force have been arrested since 1993 for felonies including homicide, rape, and robberies. Likewise, the prosecutions of police brutality are rare considering the number of complaints filed by citizens. Of the 819 cases of police brutality considered between 1992 and 1995, only 9 were prosecuted (Shanty, 2008, p. 172).
New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans were not alone in the problem of controlling police misconduct. In 1993 in Washington D.C., 113 officers were under indictment or with charges and 12 officers were arrested after ‘bragging” about misdeeds to an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer. The chief of the department said that during 1989 and 1990, “mistakes” were made in an intensive recruiting effort: most of the arrested officers had been hired during that time. In addition, during 1995, over 20 officers in the city of Philadelphia were charged with various counts of perjury, civil rights violations, and engaging in drug trafficking (Conser, 2011, p. 226).
Police abuse of power sometimes occurs in the interrogation room. In the past, police officers questioned suspects for extended periods without providing basic necessities (food, water, or an opportunity to sleep). The most egregious case of police brutality was made by Lieutenant Jon Burge. He was recently convicted on federal perjury. It was related to the decades-long tortures of suspects (almost all black males) in 1970s and 1991. Accusations include the use of electric shocks, burning, suffocation, and beating (Chambliss, 2011, p. 113).
Some argue that the fact that police use heavy force serves an integral purpose in society. Some people believe that police brutality is not only acceptable but also necessary to control crime. They view crime as an encroachment on society's right to live in crime-free communities, and police are entitled to use any means necessary to repress the criminal conduct and preserve order for the greater good of society. This belief could allow police officers to act with impunity when controlling criminal conduct. Somebody believes that the police can and should use any amount of necessary force in order to maintain order and apprehend all criminal suspects and bring them to justice as quickly as possible (Chambliss, 2011, p. 122).
On the other hand, more people argue against permitting unjustified use of force by police. They believe that this brutal conduct has negative consequences for society. Police brutality against suspects can potentially cause a plethora of problems for police, including unnecessarily brutalizing innocent members of society. Additionally, excess force could lead to diminished trust in the police, especially with populations already lacking faith in the police (e.g., inner-city African Americans), making it more difficult to perform policing functions. Furthermore, these types of activities could bring negative media attention, further damaging the reputation of the police within society (Chambliss, 2011, p. 123).
American police believed that blacks are naturally prone to criminality, and that they pose a particular threat to police authority. Thus, situations calling for extra-legal violence frequently involved blacks being perceived as disrespectful of the police. Blacks were the particular targets of illegitimate violence because the police felt impunity from sanctions due to the fact that blacks lacked political power (Holmes & Smith, 2008, p. 8).
A recent national survey reveals that black and Hispanic citizens are more likely than whites to say that police make unwarranted street stops, use insulting language, employ excessive force, and engage in corruption (Holmes & Smith, 2008, p. 72).
A Gallup poll in 2005 suggests that public perception of police has furthered declined. Gallup's annual “Crime Poll” found that 53% of Americans fell "a great deal” of confidence in the police protecting them from violent crime. In 2004, 61% expressed the same level of confidence. (James, p. 224).
Furthermore, research indicates that a small number of police officers are responsible for the vast majority of force use and brutality incidents. This means that most police departments are not wholly corrupt—rather, each department may have a few “rotten apples”. For example, the Christopher Commission, which was responsible for investigating the Los Angeles Police Department, identified 44 officers with six or more citizen complaints for excessive use of force 1986-90. Sixteen of those officers had eight or more complaints, and one officer had 16 complaints. These 44 officers constitute less than one percent of the LAPD but were responsible for over 15 percent of the department’s use-of-force reports (Chambliss, 2011, p. 117).
Police corruption today is still a major concern and is not limited to one geographical region. The future may look promising with the consent decrees in place and more training occurring now. Nevertheless, unless these departments and all others hire diverse ethical people and prosecute offenders, corruption will continue to be a major concern (Shanty, 2008, p. 172).
Police discretion and independence, the diversity of the policing functions, and the reciprocal nature of police government relations combine to strengthen the special, even unique, position of police. It underpins their power as a pressure group and as a government bureaucracy. It affords them a privileged position with government, a position that they have often used to their advantage (Lewis, 1999, p. 17).
- Chambliss, W. (Ed.). (2011). Police and law enforcement. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc
- Conser, J., & Gingerich, T., & Paynich, R. (2011). Law enforcement in the United States. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers
- Holmes, M., & Smith B. (2008). Race and police brutality: Roots of an urban dilemma. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
- Lewis, C. (1999). Complaints against police: The politics of reform. Sydney: Hawkins Press.
- Shanty, F. (Ed.). (2008). Organized crime: From trafficking to terrorism (vol. 1). Santa-Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.