Police brutality is a fact of American life. In most major cities across the country, officers abuse their authority in the most flagrant ways. New York City and Los Angeles are the most notorious for police brutality cases. In New York, when mayor Rudolph Giuliani took office in 1994, he instituted a “zero tolerance” policy, the theory that allowing small crimes to pass unpunished will encourage disrespect for the law in larger matters. This led to a huge increase in arrests for small crimes like playing music too loudly, biking on the sidewalk, and public drinking (Progressive). New York city has managed to bring down the murder rate from 2,200 in 1992 to 600 in 1998 (Economist), but some officers got the idea that it was ok to rough people up – especially people of color (Progressive). New York officers began to search people, pretty much at random and often with little cause, on the streets, in housing estates, and in apartment blocks.
Street Crime Unit’s records show that officers searched 45,000 people and arrested 9,500 in the past two years, but according to the state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, police under-report their searches, and the actual number is probably five or ten times that amount (Economist). Many of the people kicked or beaten by police were not criminal suspects but people who had simply questioned the authority of the officers or had minor disagreements with them. Nearly all victims in the cases of deaths in custody and police shootings were from racial minorities, particularly African Americans, Latinos, and Asians.
Los Angeles had a unit called Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, or C.R.A.S.H., formed in the late 1970’s. Officers patrolled the Ramparts section of Los Angeles, a low-income area with a large immigrant population and a home to gangs. LA is infamous for the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King by police officers. Police Brutality is not just confined to New York and Los Angeles, though. It is persistent in many other cities including Houston, Texas, Louisville, Kentucky, Hartford, Connecticut, and Kansas City Missouri (Progressive).
In February of 1999, New York police burst into an apartment building in pursuit of Amadou Diallo. The officers shot 41 bullets at the unarmed African and hit him 19 times. Reverend Al Sharpton started a protest movement against the killing and hundreds risked arrest for the protest (Economist). When the officers who shot and killed Diallo were acquitted, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani responded to the verdict with the words, “Probably until the day I die, I will always give police officers the benefit of the doubt.” Two days after the verdict, Malcolm Ferguson, also unarmed was gunned down in the same Bronx neighborhood where Diallo was shot (Progressive).
In Inglewood, California, a suburban area of Los Angeles, the videotaped beating of a black teen triggered nationwide outrage. The videotape showed officer Jeremy Morse slamming 16-year-old Donovan Jackson into the back of a car and then punching him in the face. The incident happened on July 7, 2002 at a service station near Los Angeles International Airport. According to his lawyer, Jackson was paying for gasoline and returned to his father’s car and found that two sheriff deputies had approached his father about expired plates. When officers ordered him to put down his potato chips and put his hands on the car some sort of dispute ensued. Jackson’s family says that Donovan did nothing to the officers and described him as a developmentally disabled special education student.
Officers say he became combative and Morse’s attorney told reporters that Jackson grabbed him in the groin. The man who shot the tape was arrested shortly after on outstanding misdemeanor warrants. He was ordered to appear before a grand jury but has publicly said that he fears for his life because of the negative reaction he claims officers have toward him for releasing the tape. He eventually went before the grand jury. Outside of the Inglewood police headquarters, civil rights activists held a large rally soon after the incident, chanting “no justice, no peace.” They were calling for the expulsion of the officers who watched Morse beat Jackson but did nothing to stop it. The FBI is investigating the case, along with the U.S. Attorney General’s office, the L.A. County Sheriffs Dept., and Inglewood police (Jet).
Although New York and Los Angeles have the most cases of police brutality, there have been many other cases of excessive force in cities all around the United States. In December of 1998, Tyisha Miller was shot and killed by police officers as she sat in a locked car at a gas station. Although Miller had a handgun lying in her lap, the officers shot her twelve times (Mfume). In Houston, Texas in July of 1998, Pedro Oregon, a Mexican national was gunned down by police during a drug raid on his home. He was unarmed and the officers were fired following protests from the Hispanic community. In Hartford, Connecticut, in April 1999, Aquan Salmon, a fourteen-year-old unarmed suspect in a robbery, and also an African American died after being shot in the back by a police officer.
In Kansas City, Missouri, in November 1998, a thirteen-year-old black child named Timothy Wilson died after being shot by officers who saw him driving recklessly. In Louisville, Kentucky, police chief Eugene Sherrard was fired for approving medals of valor for two police officers who shot and killed an unarmed black man with twenty-two bullets. The man was suspected of stealing a car (Progressive). These are only a few of the incidents of police brutality in the United States.
Although, New York’s zero tolerance policy has brought down the murder rate immensely, is a little habitual harassment a small price to pay for so many saved lives? There is a lot of argument about the extent to which zero tolerance policing attributed to the lowered murder rate. For instance, Boston has seen similar decreases in its murder rate, yet it rejected the zero tolerance policy. In Boston there is close co-ordination between the police, probation officers and black leaders, and an effort to get guns off the street (Economist).
Attorney General Janet Reno recently stated that a decrease in police brutality and racial discrimination must become a civil rights top priority. She condemned the use of racial profiling, which assumes that African American males are more likely to commit crimes, as a law enforcement tactic. If there is no coordinated approach to police misconduct, incidents like the one that ended the life of Amadou Diallo and others will be repeated, and relationships between police and many communities will deteriorate (Mfume).
“The Dark Side of Zero Tolerance.” The Economist April 3, 1999: p13
“Videotaped Beating of Teen In Inglewood, CA, Sparks Lawsuit, Federal Probe
Nationwide Outrage.” Jet Magazine July 29, 2002: p12
Mfume, Kweisi. “A Message From the President” Crisis (The New) May/June 1999: p43
“Police Brutality Must End.” Progressive April 2000: p8