The videotaped beating of Thomas Jones earlier this month by Philadelphia police has once again focused attention on a problem that many Americans wish would quietly go away. We don't want to see any more disturbing video of police beatings, read about any more special investigations of police corruption or hear any more criticism of police tactics from "community" leaders.
Whether we're willing to admit it or not, many middle-class, white Americans see the police as the thin blue line that separates us from the Thomas Joneses of the world. When questionable incidents occur, we're more than likely to give the police the benefit of the doubt -- because they give us the benefit of the doubt. And that benefit can make a difference between life and death. If the shooting of Amadou Diallo has taught us anything, it's taught us that. Some people get the benefit of the doubt, and some people don't. And sometimes where you live and the color of your skin matter more than whether you're a criminal or Diallo, the unarmed immigrant from Guinea who was gunned down by New York City police.
Many of us, nestled away in our middle-class suburbs, don't want to hear this. We're appalled when we see videotape of men like Rodney King or Thomas Jones being kicked and beaten by police. But secretly we think to ourselves that they must have done something to deserve the treatment they received. Police don't beat people like that for nothing. After all, King led police and highway patrol officers on a dangerous, high-speed freeway chase. He was drunk and had an arrest record.
Jones also had a criminal history. After being spotted in a car that had been carjacked earlier this month, he crashed the car, injuring two people in another car, led police on a foot chase, resisted arrest, allegedly shot a policeman, stole a patrol car and led police on another car chase through Philadelphia.
Clearly, what both men did was wrong, and that may lead many of us to say that what the police did was right.
The truth is that many of us want to believe that the police are always the good guys, because for many of us, the police are good guys. But there's growing, alarming evidence that for many people -- mostly immigrants, minorities and those unfortunate enough to live in "high-crime" neighborhoods -- the police are often a brutal occupation force.
Allegations of police brutality have been documented for decades in report after report. The McCone Report, commissioned after the 1965 Watts riots, noted that there was "a deep and longstanding schism between a substantial portion of the Negro community and the Police Department."
The Kerner Commission Report, which studied civil unrest in more than 20 cities during the summer of 1967, cited "deep hostility between police and ghetto communities as a primary cause of the disorders."
After the Rodney King beating in 1991, a report by the Independent Commission of the Los Angeles Police Department found that from 1986 to 1990 the city of Los Angeles paid "in excess of $20 million in judgments, settlements, and jury verdicts in over 300 lawsuits against LAPD officers alleging excessive use of force."
The troubled LAPD
The commission found a "significant number" of officers who repeatedly used excessive force with apparent impunity. The report conceded that the department's "aggressive style" of policing in minority communities often seemed to "become an attack on those communities." While the report's blunt criticism of the LAPD led to some reform, it apparently did not stop the department's assault on certain groups within the city.
Last fall, allegations of more misconduct surfaced, and now the department is faced with what may become the worst police corruption and brutality scandal in U.S. history. This latest scandal, originally involving members of the department's Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit at the department's Rampart Division, began last September when a member of the unit was caught stealing 8 pounds of cocaine from a police evidence locker. In exchange for a reduced sentence, he began to talk. What he told investigators was frightening.
In 1996, he and his partner shot a suspected gang member in the head and then planted a gun on his body and arrested him for threatening to kill them. That wasn't all. Apparently members of the unit have been engaged in illegal shootings, beatings, frame-ups, witness intimidation, perjury and evidence tampering for years, often beating and shooting targeted minority and immigrant residents and covering it up with the help of supervisors. The state attorney general, the Justice Department and the FBI have begun criminal investigations of police brutality and corruption in what is becoming a department-wide scandal.
When all is said and done, hundreds, perhaps thousands of convictions will be overturned as a result. So far, charges have been dropped against 100 suspects and at least 10 people have been freed from jail.
The projected cost of lawsuits filed by those wrongfully prosecuted is expected to be more than $200 million. Honest cops and honest citizens will pay the price for all of this -- in more than just dollars.
NYPD under investigation
Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. In fiscal 1999, New York City paid a record $40 million for settlements in claims and lawsuits alleging police brutality. Meanwhile, Diallo's death and the NYPD's controversial practice of stopping and frisking individuals in "high-crime areas" has sparked an investigation by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
These assaults on human and civil rights are not limited to big cities such as Los Angeles and New York.
A 1998 Human Rights Watch report examined 14 cities across the country and found persistent police brutality and human rights violations in all 14.
A recent Amnesty International report on police brutality in America noted "patterns of ill treatment across the USA, including police beatings, unjustified shootings and the use of dangerous restraint techniques to subdue suspects." It also noted that "racial and ethnic minorities were disproportionately the victims of police misconduct." When those who are supposed to protect our rights violate them, something is wrong.
Back in 1968, the Kerner Commission warned:
"Police misconduct -- whether described as brutality, harassment, verbal abuse or discourtesy -- cannot be tolerated even if it is infrequent. It contributes directly to the risk of civil disorder. It is inconsistent with the basic responsibility and function of a police force in a democracy."
How can we as a nation profess to care about human rights or democracy the world over, when it is so painfully obvious that we allow -- have allowed, for decades -- criminal mistreatment of certain groups in our own country?
No doubt there are many good police officers who are sickened by all of this. Bad officers disgrace them and their departments when they behave as criminals. Moreover, America disgraces itself when it allows this to continue in light of such compelling evidence.
Shame on us -- all of us.
Jane L. Twomey is a professor in the School of Communication at American University.