Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
The Source of Police Brutality
WASHINGTON, DC, July 14, 1998 --
The re-ascendance of popular faith in the police is perhaps best signified by New York City's remarkable transformation. Gone are the days of record murder statistics, widespread muggings, and aggressive panhandlers. Today's Manhattan in cleaner, safer and more thoroughly policed than at any time in 30 years. While experts disagree on the reasons behind the change, law-and-order Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has seized the opportunity to capture massive public support for his "zero tolerance" policing campaign.
New York is not alone. Across the country, cities are boosting the size of their Police forces and witnessing crime rate decreases that are truly historic in magnitude. Police power is on the rise, and the public is eating it up.
This is a startling reversal from 25 years ago, when the painful experiences of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam protest era brought concern over police brutality into the mainstream. Numerous high-profile incidents of abuse shook the public faith in police forces nationwide.
Has policing changed so much in the last quarter century as to warrant this resumption of trust?
Sadly, no. Last week's report by Human Rights Watch finds that cases of police brutality are extremely widespread and almost always go unpunished. Of nearly 12,000 reported cases in 1996, only 37 led to a Grand Jury hearing. The report blames these abuses on an absence of adequately powerful civilian oversight boards and recommends actions be taken to identify and remove "at-risk" officers.1
Although the report's points are well taken, it misses the larger issue. While some police officers may indeed be more prone to abuse than others, the very nature of the system encourages such behavior. Why should anyone be surprised by abusive behavior from a 20-year-old recruit who has just been given firearms and the power of the law? A person who is attracted to law enforcement -- a career that provides an easy way to assert power over others -- is inherently at-risk for abusiveness. When these ingredients are combined with a high-stress job, opportunities for corruption, and pervasive "fraternal order" groupthink, it is amazing how little brutality actually takes place.
Given these influences, the behavior of policemen in other countries actually seems more natural. The only factor distinguishing many third world police forces from other armed gangs is the color of the uniform. Police officers in the United States may seem more professional, but it does not change is basic nature of their existence. There is a limit to how much professionalism you can expect from an employee thrown in to such a caustic environment.
The answer to police brutality is not new legislation that ties police officers' hands with restrictive laws. The police may be an untrustworthy armed gang, but we need them. It's time to recognize and accept that all police officers are at-risk for brutality. We should treat them accordingly.
Whenever, possible, police should not be allowed to perform their duties without independent supervision. Miniature video cameras should be a required part of each officer's uniform, and should be equipped with security measures to prevent tampering. Video records of all police activities, from routine traffic stops, to SWAT operations, should be immediately available for public review.
Such measures will undoubtedly enrage the current membership of the police forces, which has long been used to excessive autonomy and respect. But fear of angering the oppressor is no excuse for avoiding change. The police claim to be serving the public. Public servants they should be.
1. Human Rights Watch, July 7, 1998