Police brutality called epidemic; Civil rights leaders urge government to curb abuse


WASHINGTON -- Calling police brutality a shameful American epidemic, some of the nation's most prominent civil rights leaders demanded yesterday that President Clinton address the beating and killing of minorities by police.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, the Rev. Al Sharpton, attorney Johnnie Cochran and members of Congress called for withholding federal dollars from police departments with patterns of abuse, establishing police-civilian review boards and ordering the Department of Justice to compile data on law enforcement misconduct.

And Maryland activist and radio talk-show host Joe Madison announced that he had completed one week of an indefinite hunger strike to protest the 1993 killing of Archie Elliott, a 24-year-old Prince George's County man shot by police.

Yesterday's news conference at the National Press Club came a week after National Urban League President Hugh B. Price sent a six-page letter to Clinton on the police abuse issue -- and barely an hour before the president agreed to meet with Price.

The civil rights leaders said they'll return to Washington in April for a National Day of Justice to mark the 31st anniversary of the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Later yesterday, Price met with Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and charted a preliminary plan of action, but fell short of arranging a White House meeting or congressional hearings.

"President Clinton wants one America," Price said, referring to the president's race initiative. "Well, Mr. Clinton, America cannot get from here to there with this kind of brutality."

Jackson said: "Today, the Department of Justice is on trial for too much silence and passivity. This is terrorism of the highest order, and it starts with the marginalization of black life on [Capitol] Hill. At some point, it's time to call murder 'murder.' "

Later, Jackson became emotional while recounting how his son, Illinois Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., then a teen-ager, had been interrogated and handcuffed by police.

Bettye Grimmitt of Pittsburgh held a photo of her 32-year-old son, killed by police four days before Christmas. "The police were not given a license to kill or use deadly force," she said. "The killing must stop."

Earlier this month, Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was shot 41 times and killed by New York City police officers. In December, police in Riverside, Calif., shot and killed Tyisha Miller with 12 bullets while she sat in a parked car. A gun was found in her car, but it is not clear whether she aimed it at them.

"The streets of our nation are being watered by the tears of families of victims," said Mfume, president of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In Baltimore, police have shot 123 people in the past four years, killing three dozen. Last year, the department investigated 384 complaints of excessive force but had no information on how many were resolved. The number of police shootings in Baltimore is about average for large U.S. cities.

In Washington yesterday, the civil rights leaders stressed that most law enforcement officials deserve respect and admiration, adding that some departments -- such as San Diego's -- have begun to study racial trends in crime enforcement.

Cochran, a former O. J. Simpson defense attorney, addressed racial profiling in traffic stops -- commonly called "Driving While Black." Of the 100,000 drivers stopped by police on the New Jersey Turnpike every year, he said, 75 percent are black. Blacks are 14 percent of the nation's population.

Madison, the talk-show host, said that according to police, Elliott was shot because he pointed a gun at them after being handcuffed and put in the back seat of a police cruiser. The officers have not been indicted, he said.

"I've been working for years to bring attention to this case but the atmosphere is now different," Madison said. "Now is the time."

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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