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Police Brutality

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Police abuse remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States. The excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment, persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses.1 Police or public officials greet each new report of brutality with denials or explain that the act was an aberration, while the administrative and criminal systems that should deter these abuses by holding officers accountable instead virtually guarantee them impunity.

This report examines common obstacles to accountability for police abuse in fourteen large cities representing most regions of the nation. The cities examined are: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Research for this report was conducted over two and a half years, from late 1995 through early 1998.

The brutality cases examined, which are set out in detail in chapters on each city, are similar to cases that continue to emerge in headlines and in survivors' complaints. It is important to note, however, that because it is difficult to obtain case information except where there is public scandal and/or prosecution, this reportrelies heavily on cases that have reached public attention; disciplinary action and criminal prosecution are even less common than the cases set out below would suggest.

Our investigation found that police brutality is persistent in all of these cities; that systems to deal with abuse have had similar failings in all the cities; and that, in each city examined, complainants face enormous barriers in seeking administrative punishment or criminal prosecution of officers who have committed human rights violations. Despite claims to the contrary from city officials where abuses have become scandals in the media, efforts to make meaningful reforms have fallen short.

The barriers to accountability are remarkably similar from city to city. Shortcomings in recruitment, training, and management are common to all. So is the fact that officers who repeatedly commit human rights violations tend to be a small minority who taint entire police departments but are protected, routinely, by the silence of their fellow officers and by flawed systems of reporting, oversight, and accountability. Another pervasive shortcoming is the scarcity of meaningful information about trends in abuse; data are also lacking regarding the police departments' response to those incidents and their plans or actions to prevent brutality. Where data do exist, there is no evidence that police administrators or, where relevant, prosecutors, utilize available information in a way to deter abuse.2 Another commonality in recent years is a recognition, in most cities, about what needs to be done to fix troubled departments. However, this encouraging development is coupled with an official unwillingness to deal seriously with officers who commit abuses until high-profile cases expose long-standing negligence or tolerance of brutality.

One recent, positive development has been the federal "pattern or practice" civil investigations, and subsequent agreements, initiated by the U.S. Justice Department.3 In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Steubenville, Ohio, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has examined shortcomings in accountability for misconduct in those cities' police departments; the cities agreed to implement reforms to end violative practices rather than risk the Justice Department taking a case to court for injunctive action. The reforms proposed by the Justice Department were similar to those long advocated by community activists and civil rights groups, and included better use-of-force training and policies, stronger reporting mechanisms, creation of early warning systems to identify current, and potential, officers at risk of engaging in abuse, and improved disciplinary procedures. The Justice Department does not usually make its investigative choices public, but several other police departments, including those in Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia, are reportedly under investigation by the Civil Rights Division.

Police abuse experts, and some police officials, refer to "problem" officers, by which they mean officers who either have significant records of abuse or significant records of complaints from the public, and who thus should receive special monitoring, training and counseling to counter the heightened risk that they will be involved in some future incident of misconduct or brutality. In this report, we will use this terminology where police officials and experts use it, to denote officers who, on account of their record of either sustained or unsustained complaints, appear to present a higher than normal risk of committing human rights violations.

Allegations of police abuse are rife in cities throughout the country and take many forms. This report uses specific incidents as illustrations of the obstacles to deterring, investigating and acting upon perceived abuses. Human Rights Watch is presenting these cases not to accuse any particular officer of an abuse, but rather to describe the barriers that exist to addressing such allegations meaningfully. Any alleged abuse has a corrosive effect on public trust of the police force, and it is imperative that the system be reformed to prevent human rights violations such as those described below.

A seriously flawed background check of a new recruit who had a history of abusive behavior while working for another police department, apparent misuse of pepper spray, and poor investigation procedures were evident in the Aaron Williams case. (See San Francisco chapter for additional details.) Williams died while in the custody of San Francisco police officers after officers subdued him and sprayed him with pepper spray in the Western Edition neighborhood in June 1995. Williams, a burglary suspect, was bound with wrist and ankle cuffs,and according to witnesses was hit and kicked after he was restrained.4 Departmental rules apparently were broken when the officers used pepper spray repeatedly on Williams, who appeared to be high on drugs, and officers did not monitor his breathing as required.5 One of the officers involved in the incident, Marc Andaya, had reportedly been the subject of as many as thirty-five complaints while working with the Oakland police force before being hired by the San Francisco Police Department.6 In Oakland, his supervisor reportedly had urged desk duty for Andaya because of his "cowboy" behavior.7

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