Police brutality has been a long lasting problem in the United States since at least 1903 when police Captain Williams of the New York Police Departmen coined the phrase, There is more law at the end of a policemans nightstick than in a decision of the Supreme Court. In the 1920s the Wichersham Commission had a number of instances of police brutality. Many of these included the use of the third degree (beating to obtain a confession). This is a very effective way to get a confession out of somebody. However, beating the accused could easily elicit a confession from a scared and innocent person.
Also, this puts the accused persons life in danger. Police officers must make snap life and death decisions daily. Officers work in an environment where death (theirs, their partners, and an innocent or guilty person) is one decision away. How does that constant fear effect an officers perception? Unfortunately, many that are attracted to law enforcement are aggressive and prone towards violence as a solution. Police officers have a lot of power. With this power comes responsibility. Police brutality can be defined as the excessive or unreasonable use of force in dealing with citizens, suspects and offenders.
A nationally known example occurred on the morning of March 3, 1991. Rodney King was pulled out of his vehicle and beaten by two Los Angeles police officers. The LAPD had originally given chase to Mr. Kings vehicle due to a failure to yield. Officers fired a 50,000-volt Taser electric dart gun at Mr. King. They also hit King with batons. Mr. King, according to police officials, was hit approximately 56 times. Mr. King had 11 broken bones at the base of his skull. Also, the bones holding his eye in the right socket were broken (LA Times March 19, 1991 p. A20). The policemen reported that Mr.
King appeared to be on PCP at the time he was pulled over. Subsequent tests indicated Mr. King had no drugs or alcohol in his system (Serrano, 1991 p. A1). The Rodney King incident was however, captured by a private citizen on videotape. This videotape has subsequently been broadcast nationally and the ensuing trial against the police officers involved captivated our nation. (LA Times March 19, 1991 p. A20). Twenty-seven uniformed officers witnessed this incident from various law enforcement agencies. None of the officers (those individuals who are supposed to protect citizens) made any effort to stop this abuse.
The level of escalation even went so far as to call in a police helicopter! (Ironically, the lights from the helicopter actually improved the lighting for the videotape. ) The King beating brought complaints from the Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley and national attention from civil rights leaders. Many believed the beating was racially motivated and extended from a pattern of abusive behavior by police towards blacks. (McDonald 1991) This act of violent behavior from police officers has brought many questions to the national table, such as: Is police brutality on the rise?
Is the police hiding behind their badges? How does the public view police brutality? How can we raise public awareness? Is police brutality on the rise? This is an important question to ask ourselves and the police departments. A study in seventeen counties in Northern California indicated that in the past two years excessive force and neglect has resulted in at least seven deaths and fatal injury. (Saari, no date) In fact a nine-month period from August 26, 1996 to June 29, 1997 seven citizens died as a result of police brutality. Sonoma County California currently has the highest rate of custody deaths in the bay area (Saari).
In many cases the situation (according to police accounts) has rapidly escalated to a point where police feel the need to use deadly force. Many of those committing crimes are mentally ill. The Sonoma County Alliance for the Mentally Ill advises that police officers in confrontations with people experiencing psychiatric episodes: Speak calmly and quietly Slow down the pace Be willing to repeat yourself Do not try to hurry a resolution This increase in violence is part of a toughened criminal justice system, which includes the war on drugs, the building of new prisons, and the garnering of federal habeas corpus rights.
Kerstetter, 1985 p. 160) This rise in police brutality may come from a quick criminalization of people because the public wants safer streets and quick action by the police. (Rockwell, 1997) Pressure has been put on police to deal with the criminals, juveniles and other public problems, so it reasons that an overburdened police officer finds people or a group of people committing some kind of crime that they just beat the hell out of them to save time instead of arresting the assailants and filling out the proper paper work. (U. S. Department of Justice. 994)
An incident in the New York subway illustrates what (due to the publics level of fear) police officers are doing to suspicious albeit innocent citizens. July 1998 around 11 oclock at night 18 year old Lani Soto was riding the New York subway train (Herbert, 1999). She had just left work and was on her way to Williamsburg, where she lives, when one of two officers came up to where she was sitting. The officer started asking her questions when one of them told her to stand up, she said no and the officer grabbed her by the hair and pushed her face into the train door.
Then the police officer claimed to be frisking her. Instead of doing a routine frisk the officer put his hand in between her legs and then on her breasts. This was done for longer than necessary to ascertain whether or not she carried a weapon. When the train stopped and the doors opened Lani stepped off the train and the police officers stood on the train laughing at her. It is not uncommon for officers to stop and ask questions or frisk a suspicious person or persons in the New York subway. But, to go as far as sexual harassment and beating these suspects is wrong. (Houppert, 1999 p. ) Another case to support the statement of police abusing their power is Shawn Robbins, a 30 year old associate director for CBS Sports (Houpert, 1999).
Mr. Robbins was on his way to the gym on November 20, 1997 when he noticed a man cleaning out his car by tossing trash out on the street. The smell and the sight of the trash being thrown right onto the street became so overwhelming that Robbins felt he had to say something. He said to the man, Theres a trash can over on every block in the city, why dont you put it in the garbage? Then the man relpied, If you wanna pick it up, you censoreding pick it up!
Robbins picked up a coffee cup and set it on the trunk of the off duty police officers car. At that point, the officer proceeded to arrest him for no reason at all. Officer Brian Moran threatened to pull out his gun and put it to Robbins head. Robbins was taken down town to the 17th precinct and charged with disorderly conduct. After being held for several hours, Mr. Robbins was released. (DeSantis, 1994 p. 4) On his way out of the police station Mr. Robbins asked for the officers name that had arrested him. The officer behind the desk told him to get out of the station or he was really going to get it.
So the police threatened Mr. Robbins for a second time. On March 23rd criminal court quickly dismissed the charge against Robbins. Robbins also filed a complaint and a civil rights suit. Alleging police brutality, false arrest, and false imprisonment. The civilian complaint review board obtained the report and found the officer Morans version of events. Moran said that he told Robbins that the trash wasnt his. He also said he never used the word censored. The desk officer denied making the threatening statement. Just because a cop has had a bad day at work or for whatever else that is bothering him doesnt give him the right to take advantage of his position.
DeSantis, 1994 p. 4) Out of the cases reviewed, it sounds like that just because the officer on the subway had nothing better to do, he decided to harass a young woman. The officers felt like they had the power to do anything they wanted without any reason at all. In the incident with Shawn Robbins where the officers falsely arrested a man for trying to keep the streets clean in his neighborhood, an off duty officer had a bad day and took his aggression out on the first person to push the wrong buttons. These cops do what they do because they have a badge, a gun and because they can.