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Winter Books
Toleration shields police abuse

By Allyson Collins
Human Rights Watch, 440 pages, $20


“Who’s there?” is the opening line of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Surprisingly though, it is not the guard but the man approaching the castle’s gate who poses the question. This reversal of roles seems to intimate that something is seriously awry in Elsinore, that the kingdom has been corrupted by evil forces.

Likewise, Shielded from Justice cautions us about the reversal of roles in our society, suggesting that the protectors of rights have turned into violators. In New Orleans, for example, “public awareness of police corruption and abuse reached a new high in the mid-1990s, as dozens of officers were tried for felonies including murder, armed robbery and drug trafficking. ... One officer was convicted of hiring a professional killer to murder a woman for bringing a brutality complaint against him, and another was convicted for killing a brother and sister who worked at a family-run restaurant where the officer had been a security guard ... ” The New Orleans police force, one might add, is only one of many departments currently under investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Although this impressive study provides several examples of the excessive use of force by officers, claiming that “police brutality is one of the most serious, enduring, and divisive violations in the United States,” the author’s principal objective is not focused on documenting horrific incidents. Rather, Shielded from Justice concentrates on uncovering the conditions that allow these barbarous occurrences to persist, averring that “the problem is nationwide, and its nature is institutionalized.”

Collins’ rigorous investigation revolves around a straightforward question: How is it that police brutality continues to be rampant despite the fact that it has been exposed by the media and that many police departments have been harshly criticized by independent commissions? The answer, though complex, is forthright: There is a general lack of accountability. The analysis of this deficit is the author’s most important contribution.

Shielded from Justice represents two years of research in fourteen major cities around the country, and it is divided into four parts. The first, “Summary and Recommendations,” is followed by an overview that analyzes the major causes for the lack of accountability in cases of police brutality. These two parts are based on the findings of the third section, the bulk of the book, which includes fourteen chapters, each one dedicated to a different city: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The last section includes eight appendices that may be used for reference.

The author argues that police abuse exists primarily because it is tolerated; furthermore this tolerance is supported by the very institutional apparatus that is supposed to combat such offenses. By exposing institutional barriers to investigation, to redress and to the prosecution of police offenses, the book at times transcends its own objectives and manages to uncover some of the more general problems facing our society.

We read that a small group of abusive officers, usually comprising no more than 2 or 3 percent of any given police force, generate most of the complaints of excessive use of force. The problem is that these officers are not ejected from the system and consequently continue their criminal activity. Although the book does not say as much, it is evident from the findings that the violators are not only the officers who actually engage in unjustified shootings or unnecessary rough physical treatment, but include all those who, by remaining silent, ensure the impunity of the lawbreakers.

Lack of effective leadership and the failure of the judiciary system are, according to the book, among the major shortcomings common to all the cities. Following the 1991 Christopher Commission report published in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, the author concludes that the problem of excessive use of force is “fundamentally a problem of supervision, management and leadership.” Police supervisors have never been evaluated according to how they deal with subordinate officers who commit human rights violations. Very few departments around the country, if any, have developed “early warning systems to identify and manage ‘problem officers,’ ” and police unions are often all too hasty to protect offenders instead of removing the rotten apples from the basket. Above all, hardly any police chiefs have actually implemented a “zero tolerance for abuse” policy.

The failure of professional leadership is aggravated by the inadequacy of political leadership. In 1994, Congress called on the Justice Department to produce a nationwide report on police brutality. Almost four years have passed, the report is still unfinished and the representatives are waiting ... patiently. Data reveals that, “despite rhetoric to the contrary, the Clinton administration has neither dedicated significantly greater resources nor had much more success than previous administrations in prosecuting law enforcement officers for civil rights violations.”

The judiciary system is culpable as well. Out of 9,000 attorneys working for the Justice Department, only 32 are responsible for prosecuting police abuse; that is, one federal civil rights prosecutor for every 22,950 law enforcement officers. It’s no wonder that of the “thousands of complaints the Justice Department receives annually, it prosecutes only a handful.” Local prosecution of excessive use of force by police personnel is even rarer. This pattern is particularly alarming since it points to an inadequate separation of power between the executive and judiciary branches.

Race, the author emphasizes, continues to play a central role in the use of excessive force in the United States, yet she does not stress the relevance of sex. (If the book would have examined police brutality in prisons -- or even taken into account other Human Rights Watch reports that have done just that -- the significance of sex would not have been downplayed). Even more important, in my opinion, is her failure to underscore the crucial role that class plays in cases of police brutality; most abuses seem to occur at the intersection of race or sex with class. Collins’ book reinforces the lack of economic analysis that characterizes Human Rights Watch’s work in general; this work, in turn, mirrors the broader fear of Marx’s specter in U.S. culture.

This criticism brings to the fore what I believe to be the book’s most critical oversight. Namely, that social and even human rights critiques must include an economic analysis.

Consider the following example. We read that even though aggressive “quality of life” policing has led to an increase in complaints of abuse, New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani continues to flaunt his policing techniques. Collins notes that Guiliani’s strategy has become very popular and is now being copied in other cities around the country. She neglects to point out that the mayor’s “quality of life” policing is primarily popular with the middle class. The middle class supports Guiliani’s policy since it, generally speaking, is not subjected to excessive use of force. Guiliani, in turn, listens to the middle class because it comprises the majority of voters in this country.

As the author makes clear in the recommendations, in order to stop police brutality a no-tolerance policy must be imposed from the top down. She does not add, however, that such a policy will be adopted only when voters demand change. By and large, the millions of lower-class citizens, particularly blacks and Latinos who are most affected by police brutality, no longer participate in this country’s political life. Consequently, their needs are not seriously considered by the political leadership. The book’s success in exposing the lack of institutional support to stop police brutality only confirms this claim, but the recommendations do not actually address it. Reforming legal procedures and ensuring transparency, as the book suggests, will not suffice if the objective is to secure the rights of all people. If political leaders are to be accountable to all citizens, including poor minorities, the political system itself will have to be transformed.

Despite Collins’ inattentiveness to the role of economics, I strongly recommend her book. “Who’s there?” Collins asks, and, as with Hamlet, whose search leads him to realize that Elsinore has been corrupted, she finds the situation in the U.S. indefensible. Indeed, her incessant effort to probe into a system that is often concealed from the public’s eye has enabled her to expose its bankruptcy, revealing that the institutions and people who are supposed to stop the pernicious acts committed by police officers have failed us.

It seems that not a week goes by without an incident of police brutality appearing in the press; and yet we tend to be forgiving, we tend to forget. Perhaps it is because police work is difficult and so often dangerous that people are inclined to refrain from looking too closely at how the objectives are accomplished. As one person said, if safety means kicking a little butt, so be it. Aside from the fact that we are not merely talking about “kicking a little butt,” this logic endorses the morally hollow view that the end justifies the means; it does so in order to rationalize societies’ indifference toward police brutality. Collins rejects this moral position, showing that excessive use of force by officers has become an accepted norm in our culture. By uncovering some of the causes that have led to this culture of violence, Collins has done a great service to all those who believe that the struggle for a more just society begins in one’s backyard.

The book is also available on Human Rights Watch’s website: http://www.hrw.org

Neve Gordon writes from Israel.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998