Police Brutality Charges on the Rise
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 12/6/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA)--Fifteen years after the Los Angeles police videotaped beating of Rodney King sensitized America about police brutality, some civil rights advocates say cops are still out of control in Black neighborhoods and the violence appears to be increasing with the institution of anti-terror measures.
''The heightened so-called war on terrorism I think that is fueling police aggression,'' says Diop Kamau, a former Hawthorne, Calif. police detective and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Complaint Center.
''I think that the president's choice with regards to torture, the attack on habeas corpus, the kind of things that we're doing overseas, I think, are actually impacting domestic police policies.
''I think the green light with regards to spying and everything else, what it has done is elevated the role and the public's regard for law enforcement to the attitude that says, 'Those are our protectors. We need to take the gloves off and give them the room to do what they need to do,' Well, they're not always fighting terrorists, and they're not always arresting bad guys. More often than not they're dealing with regular people for small and minor incidents.''
And they're disproportionately Black.
''It's still mainly just us...We are the fodder for the lion. And the bottom line is that's not going to change any time soon,'' says Kamau.
''I think that as African-Americans continue to be viewed and anticipated by police as violent and uncooperative with all of this negative stereotype associated with Black youth, those are going to be the principle victims.''
The center files complaints on behalf of victims, assists citizens with reporting of misconduct, tests for racial profiling and tests to determine whether police complaint systems work.
Kamau says between Dec. 2005 and Dec. 2006, police misconduct complaints he has received from around the country have increased by 40 percent, from 239 to 336.
Two currently high-profile cases have sparked outrage from the streets to the halls of Congress.
The Nov. 21 shooting death of a 92-year-old woman in her Atlanta home by police who claimed to have been on a drug raid is now under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In addition, the Nov. 25 shooting death of 23-year-old Sean Bell by five New York undercover police detectives and officers. Bell was killed in a hail of 50 bullets as he and two friends left his bachelor party on his wedding day.
Civil rights activists Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson Sr. and Marc Morial have called for FBI investigations into the case.
Kamau says federal legislation is needed to supercede some state and local laws.
Strong police unions also present a problem, he says.
''People don't know this, but police unions, particularly in New York, for example, have been lobbying so that officers who are accused of misconduct don't have to talk to their own police administrators,'' Kamau says.
U. S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees matters of criminal justice, says he will use his clout to demand more police accountability.
Conyers says he has already spoken with New York Congressmen Gregory Meeks and Charles Rangel and is planning a meeting with activists and civil rights leaders to seek long-term solutions.
''We're looking at some new ways and we want to hold creative hearings,'' Conyers told the NNPA News Service in his first press interview since the Democrats won control of the House Nov. 7.
''I'm going to be meeting with Meeks, Rangel, Rev. Jackson and Rev. Sharpton and we're going to be looking at how we can move some of this racial and ethnic profiling into a more workable system.''
Conyers, the senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, says he will be able to say more after the official swearing into his new position, which will take place in January.
''The whole idea is that we're beginning to see that it's just not working. Law enforcement investigating law enforcement is just something that may need to be changed,'' he says.
''There's one thing that we had said earlier. That's getting independent systems to deal with this and I think that might be possible�[We will] get a fair examination of how we improve from some of the deplorable situations that are now being taken for granted and keep reoccurring.''
Kamau has seen a change in the way people are brutalized. Years ago, police mainly used guns, batons, dogs and tear gas. Now they have tasers, stun guns and chemicals, such as pepper spray.
''Each of those items in many situations are being used for punishment and abuse and not control,'' Kamau says.
''Also, you're now looking at where officers were carrying revolvers 30 years ago, they're now carrying semi-automatic weapons. There's also been an explosion in SWAT teams and intervention teams across the country.''
Though police brutality has long been an issue in the Black community, public outrage over it has been stronger now that many incidents are being caught by citizens on videotape. Still, national advocates against police brutality say it will be difficult to crack police culture, including the so-called ''blue code of silence'' that causes some police to stick together and sometimes remain silent even after witnessing wrongdoing.
''The culture of law enforcement is White, male-dominated, racist, sexist, homophobic, and then you might find a good cop,'' says retired East Orange, N.J. Police Sergeant De Lacy Davis, founder and president of Black Cops Against Police Brutality.
''The mindset is that it is a White supremacy mindset, by in large, that we are fighting in policing. Black police didn't enter the police force in this country until 1805 in Louisiana as ''The Guard''. And their role solely was to watch Black people ''free Blacks'' and to apprehend Blacks. Nothing else. And that role hasn't changed since 1805.''
Kamau knows about police brutality from experience. In 1988, when he sensed there were places where Black men could not walk in Los Angeles without police harassment, he went undercover to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department.
In the video-taped sting operation, he and six companions were stopped while walking through the upscale Westwood Village area. He was charged with blocking a sidewalk, but the charges were later dropped. The next year, in a similar operation to test the Long Beach Police Department, he was followed by a news crew secretly videotaping his movement. Kamau was stopped and beaten by police who did not know that he, too, was an officer. He was charged with resisting arrest and obstructing an investigation. During the arrest, an officer bashed Kamau's head through a plate glass window.
The video was publicly released and the officers involved were charged with assault and falsifying police reports.
But they got off when the jury deadlocked, splitting along racial lines. They were never convicted. The FBI and Justice Department also cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. However, the California State Legislature increased the penalty for falsifying a police report from a misdemeanor to a felony and now requires all police officers to take a class in racial sensitivity.
Davis, the author of the book, ''Black Cops Against Police Brutality: A Crisis Action Plan,'' says he not only witnessed a lot of police brutality before he retired last year after 20 years, but he also broke the ''blue code'' many times to serve as a witness in court.
He says one problem is that legislative bodies fail to put teeth into new laws to control police behavior.
''When people talk about oversight and commissions and civilian review boards, all of that is reduced to nothing if there's no funding for it or investigators for it or if it doesn't have subpoena power,'' he says.
Among his advice in the book, Davis says if a person believes they are being stopped for no good reason, they should not debate the issue on the street.
''Take a deep breath and develop your strategy, which will be used later when you file your complaint. Remain calm,'' the book states. It says to take notes of the officer's name, badge, car number and physical description, and notice any witnesses, the time of day, location, weather conditions and unique circumstances such as a type of vehicle or building nearby.
Davis, as a former union head, says the union must protect dues-paying members, but should also be held accountable.
''Therefore, when the union is doing its job and even doing more than its job by protecting bad officers; then they should have to share in the liability and the culpability. They should be sued,'' he says.
Conyers, a member of the Judiciary Committee since his election in 1965, says police brutality and profiling will be among many criminal justice laws that the Judiciary Committee will now consider with its new Democratic power holders.
''We're going to change very dramatically the circumstances that exist in this country in terms of civil rights laws and actions,'' Conyers says.
''Now that we're in the majority, we don't have to come with hat-in-hand anymore. We can cause the investigation to happen. We can introduce legislation. And we have the majority that can pass the laws.''
Meanwhile, Kamau is not optimistic to cops under suspicion in the Atlanta and New York cases.
''Don't anticipate any of these officers to be found guilty of anything,'' he says.
''The bad news is that these kinds of shootings are easily covered up. All these officers have to do is speak to what their state of mind was and they're going to be exonerated. And their state of mind was, 'I was scared'.''