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Police Brutality: A License to Maul

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The Founding Fathers sought to create a “government of laws, not of men.” A key principle of this doctrine is that no person is above the law — that every government employee must obey the same laws that government imposes on private citizens. Unfortunately, when it comes to police brutality, politicians, judges, and police bureaucrats have often miserably failed to protect the American public.

While many police are bravely and steadfastly serving and protecting their fellow citizens, too many others are acting like public enemies:

In 1991, four policemen from the Oakland, California, Housing Authority were convicted for assaulting, robbing, stealing from, and planting drugs on local residents; several others pleaded guilty. U.S. Attorney William McGivern described the cops’ behavior toward public housing residents:

“They stole from them, they beat them up, they threatened and intimidated them, and their supervisors in some cases stood by and allowed this to happen.”

One local attorney involved in cases against the Housing Authority characterized the police tactics as “a planned terror campaign” that has victimized residents. The police abuses skyrocketed after they received a special federal grant to crack down on drug trafficking at housing projects.

In New Orleans in late 1994, U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan announced: “I would describe corruption in the New Orleans Police Department to be . . . rampant and systematic.” In the past three years, more than 30 New Orleans policemen have been busted for crimes ranging from bribery, theft — and even bank robbery. The New York Times noted in 1995 that the new department chief sought to “discourage vigorously two time-honored department traditions: robbing drug peddlers, and tooling around town in recovered stolen cars that officers never bothered to report as found.”

One New Orleans policeman found a decisive way to respond to a police-brutality complaint. On the day after Kim Groves watched policeman Lynn Davis and a colleague pistol-whip a 17-year-old boy, she filed a complaint alleging police brutality. Davis responded by phoning a drug dealer he knew and arranging to have Kim Groves murdered. After the 32-year-old mother of three was shot within steps of her front door, the killer called the cop to confirm the hit and share a laugh. The cop who arranged the murder had, as one fellow officer observed, “an internal affairs jacket as thick as a telephone book. But supervisors have swept his dirt under the rug for so long that it’s coming back to haunt them.” The policeman had been suspended four times since being hired in 1987 and was known as a “terrorist” by residents of a public housing complex he patrolled. At least 50 New Orleans officers have been arrested since 1993, according to a recent report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

In 1993, Federal Judge Joyce Green condemned the District of Columbia, declaring that

“the District’s system for investigating complaints of excessive force by police officers has been so ineffective that it has helped cause the behavior it was designed to punish and prevent.”

Green denounced the city for “maintaining a [police] complaint and disciplinary process so ineffective as to virtually constitute a nullity.” One former police detective explained last year to the Washington City Paper how difficult it was for a bad cop to get caught by the internal affairs department: “You damn near have to come in, knock on the door, tell them you committed a crime, highlight it for them, then call them every day and remind them to bust you.” According to one law-enforcement expert, Washington, D.C., may be the only city in the United States to have a higher percentage of its police officers currently under felony indictments than the population at large.

Elsewhere in the Washington, D.C., area, the Prince George’s County, Maryland, police have long had a reputation for being too enthusiastic with their flashlights. When a Prince George’s cop was killed in 1995, a phalanx of police descended upon a suspect’s home, ransacked his place, and brutally beat him before bringing him down to the police station. The police department was embarrassed when it later turned out that they had arrested and terrorized the wrong man. But going above and beyond the call of duty, the police also targeted the man’s relatives and acquaintances.

In 1995, a Philadelphia black plain-clothes policewoman was dragged from the scene of a domestic disturbance and beaten with fists and flashlights by other police after her partner radioed in a call for backup. Officer Adrienne Cureton, a six-year veteran of the police force, observed, “I personally believe they saw a black, they grabbed me, and they did what they had the opportunity to do.” The National Association of Black Police Officers held a press conference shortly after the attack to complain about a growing number of attacks on black police officers across the nation.

In 1993, the mayor of New York City appointed a special commission (chaired by former judge Milton Mollen) to investigate police corruption and brutality in the city. Commission hearings revealed that corrupt cops would spend their night shifts “doin’ doors” (conducting illegal raids), busting into up to five apartments every night to shake down and beat drug dealers and anyone else who fell into their path. In one case, three police officers led by a lieutenant ransacked two apartments in East Harlem, throwing women against the wall, ripping up carpeting, and punching a hole in the wall. The police had no warrant to even enter the apartments. In another case, a policeman was seen shooting a drug dealer in the stomach while robbing him. One cop testified early in the Mollen Commission hearings: “Police officers view the community as a candy store.”

New York magazine summarized some of the commission’s findings:

“Investigators saw that the officers of the Dirty 30 were not just holding up dealers; they were effectively fueling the drug trade. It was not a coordinated ring, but the multiple bands of thieving, dealing cops competing for the scores and communicated with a common code — a ‘green day’ was a day to rob dealers; a ‘boomer’ was a burglary. . . . Most of the rogues worked in groups. “It’s easier to break down doors and terrorize dealers if you have some backup,” an investigator said.”

The Mollen Commission concluded:

“We find . . . shocking the incompetence and the inadequacies of the department to police itself. . . . From the top brass down to local precinct commanders and supervisors, there was a pervasive belief that uncovering serious corruption would harm careers and the reputation of the department. . . . The department allowed its system for fighting corruption virtually to collapse. . . . One commanding officer encouraged illegal searches and arrest charges as a means of bolstering his unit’s performance record.”

The report noted the practice of “collars for dollars,” in which officers sometimes took shortcuts to make more arrests to earn more overtime and earn promotions to coveted assignments.

Unfortunately, the Mollen Commission’s report received little attention outside of New York. The Mollen Commission’s chief counsel and deputy counsel, Joseph Armao and Leslie Cornfeld, observed:

“Today’s corruption is not the corruption of Knapp Commission days [in the early 1970s]. . . . Corruption then was largely a corruption of accommodation, of criminals and police officers giving and taking bribes, buying and selling protection. Corruption was, in its essence, consensual. Today’s corruption is characterized by brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality.”

Last September, a federal judge condemned one Harlem police officer caught dealing drugs and breaking into property without a search warrant, declaring,

“His crimes have shaken the foundation of our law enforcement system and our belief in the rule of law. His crimes have made police the enemy and not the protector of his victims, and instilled fear in all those who know of his acts and those of other corrupt officers.”

A 1996 Amnesty International report observed:

“Police brutality in New York City appears to be a persistent, widespread and long-standing problem which is not limited to minorities and may be a sign of a wider police culture. Some officers acted as if they had a green light to abuse any citizen in New York City in the confidence that they would never be held accountable for their actions.”

The Mollen Commission’s findings should have caused little surprise. A 1991 investigation by Newsday found:

“Ninety-eight percent of brutality allegations end with no disciplinary action by the department. Even when officers are found guilty of using excessive force, the penalty many receive is a one-week suspension — the same punishment given to an officer who accepts two free doughnuts from a restaurant, wears a turtleneck while in uniform, or is discourteous to a supervisor.”

Since the Mollen Commission began its investigation, New York has been rocked by one police scandal after another:

Twenty-nine police in Harlem — almost a fifth of the NYPD in Harlem — were arrested last year for robbery, assault, breaking and entering, lying, and other crimes.

Reports surfaced in New York papers in 1995 of dozens of police in Queens, New York, who were suspected of taking drugs, stealing petty cash from store owners, and stealing the wallets from shooting and accident victims.

The New York Times reported in 1995 that 20 officers in the Bronx were expected to be arrested soon for “beating up suspects, stealing narcotics, and stealing money from drug dealers.” NYPD Commissioner William Bratton announced that the department was investigating a group of dirty cops in the Bronx and even gave a newspaper reporter the name of the chief informant, which was dutifully sprayed over the front page of the following day’s New York Times. Bratton’s disclosure was widely perceived as sabotaging the investigation. Newsday columnist Sydney Schanberg noted:

“We know from long experience that this is an age-old technique used by police brass when they fear that widespread scandal might bring down their very selves. The purpose of the technique is quite simple: It is to blow the cover off the investigation and thus destroy it.”

Some police routinely unnecessarily rough up arrestees. For instance, protesters engaged in Operation Rescue, the attempt to blockade abortion clinics, have frequently been singled out for “pain compliance” methods of arrest. (This criticism of the police is not meant to condone the methods or goals of Operation Rescue itself.) The Los Angeles Times reported on the Los Angeles Police Department’s arrest methods on demonstrators:

“They press fingers under their noses. They dig their knuckles into protesters’ necks, and torque martial arts weapons around their wrists. At one point, two officers twist a woman’s arm till she rises from the ground, her face wrenched in agony. In another scene, a young man winces as officers lead him along. His arm, contorted behind his back, finally snaps.”

Many police departments routinely impose chokeholds on arrestees, regardless of whether the arrestee offers any resistance; arrestees sometimes die as a result. Regardless of how often such chokeholds result in death, police spokesmen almost always describe such fatalities as “accidents.”

Brutality also sometimes occurs as an integral part of police searches. In 1988, a Los Angeles police department captain apparently instructed police to use a search to “level” and make “uninhabitable” four apartment units in south central Los Angeles that were suspected of harboring drug dealers. The search ended with the seizure of less than six ounces of marijuana and less than one ounce of crack, but the Los Angles Police Department had to pay out $3 million in civil claims for damage. Policemen smashed dozens of holes in the wall, destroyed furniture and kitchen cabinets, and even threw a dining room table out the window.

The Los Angeles Times noted that LAPD officer Todd Parrick “swung the red ax so wildly as he tore from room to room in the apartments . . . that his fellow LAPD officers believed he was going to hurt himself or the other policemen in his path.” A police internal affairs evaluation concluded:

“Of 37 suspects detained, only seven were arrested. But dozens were injured, and the reports level allegations that police officers kicked, slapped and beat apartment residents while they were handcuffed outside. ”

Unfortunately, while many conservatives are championing vesting new powers with law enforcement to solve the crime problem, there is far too little concern about crimes committed by law enforcement agents themselves.

Police brutality is a fundamental breach of contract between the people and the government — politicians and other government officials effectively closing their eyes and turning their heads while some government officials effectively make war on the public.

The purpose of having a police force is not to give some people a license to knock other people in the head. Instead, the purpose is to safeguard citizens’ rights and property. The least that government can do is avoid giving guns, badges, and de facto legal immunity to violent, volatile, and unstable people.

One of the best ways to reduce police brutality is to greatly reduce the number of laws that police have to enforce. “Order” is something different from keeping people subdued through sheer fear of violent government agents.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.