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Police Brutality

Police Brutality

Outrage. Disgust. Sadness. These were the emotions felt by most African Americans on February 4, 1999, when they heard that Amadou Diallo, a twenty-two-year-old immigrant from Guinea, had been shot at forty-one times, and killed with nineteen bullets by members of the New York Police Department's Street Crime Unit. Yet, while shocked by the magnitude of police firepower used to kill this unarmed young man, we were not surprised. In a wide range of communities of color, being harassed, or brutalized, or even mur­dered by the police has never been cause for surprise. Alarm, yes, but not surprise.

We felt similar emotions ten months later when the New York State Supreme Court's Appel1ate Division, an all-White panel of five judges, responding to a defense motion, moved the trial of the four officers indicted for the Diallo shooting from the Bronx to Albany, New York's state capital. The justification? That it would be impossi­ble to find twelve impartial jurors in the Bronx or anywhere else in New York City had a jury trial taken place. The appellate justices decided in what is, regrettably, a much too predictable way, that it would be better to move the trial to upstate Albany, an overwhelm­ingly white county 150 miles removed from New York, than to keep the trial in the Bronx where the shooting took place. It was hardly a surprise then to learn that Albany County is a place where African Americans and Latinos combined make up less than 14 percent of the population, an area where even fewer people of color become potential jurors, and where roughly 100 percent of police officers who go on trial are acquitted.

Nor did it come as a surprise when on February 25 the four offi­cers who shot Amadou Diallo were each acquitted of all six charges against them-from second-degree murder down to reckless endan­germent-after the jury deliberated for two and a half days. A pro­found disappointment, yes, but not a surprise. We have seen this scenario played out too many times. The United States attorney in Manhattan, whose office has been monitoring the case, and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department will review the case to determine if any civil rights laws were violated. Diallo's parents plan to file a civil lawsuit against the city, and it is possible, though unlikely, that the officers could face administrative charges within the department.

Surprise. Shock. Disbelief. These were the emotions felt by most White Americans when they learned of Amadou Diallo's murder by the police. Theirs is a world of White privilege in which Whiteness confers not only power and opportunity but also a presumption of innocence and the right to protection. It is a world in which the police are, if not exactly friends, certainly not enemies, a world in which, more often than not, if the players are a Black person and a policeman, the policeman will receive the benefit of the doubt.
Standing on a street corner in Manhattan two days after Diallo's murder, having just come from a meeting of concerned citizens to plan an organized response, I was so filled with frustration and sor­row that I turned to the woman beside me waiting for the light to change and asked "What do you think about the cops shooting that man forty-one times?"

She looked startled, confused-could she not feel the palpable rage, pain, and fear that pulsed through the black veins of this city and other cities across this nation?

"I don't know. I have to wait until all the facts are in. I'm sure they had a reason," she finally responded.

Perhaps she saw the disgust and disappointment on my face. Step­ping off the curb as the light turned green, she added, "I mean, he must have done something." She was gone before I could tell her that Amadou Diallo and thousands of others didn't do anything: his crime was being Black and leaving his apartment building to go get something to eat. And of course there was no time to ask her exactly what "something" any human being could possibly do to warrant being shot at forty-one times by officers hired, paid, and pledged to "serve and protect." She could not understand that the issue wasn't Amadou Diallo's behavior but the actions of the police. I was disap­pointed and hurt by her words, but I was no more surprised by her response than by Diallo's murder.

There is nothing new about these responses to police brutality, or about brutality itself The Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to look into the cause of the urban rebellions of the 1960s, reported in 1968,
We have cited deep hostility between police and ghetto communi­ties as a primary cause of the disorders surveyed by the Commis­sion. In Newark, in Detroit, in Watts, in Harlem-in practically every city that has experienced racial disruption since the summer of 1964-abrasive relationships between police and Negroes and other minority groups have been a major source of grievance, ten­sion and, ultimately, disorder .... 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 of a police force in a democracy. Police departments must have rules prohibiting such misconduct and enforce them vigor­ously. Police commanders must be aware of what takes place in the field, and take firm steps to correct abuses.l

The Kerner Commission Report was not the first report to iden­tify police misconduct as a key element of the fragile relationship between police and communities of color. Yet the problem persists in this new century. In the last year alone, two New Jersey state troop­ers were indicted on attempted-murder and assault charges after shooting three of four Black and Latino men during a traffic stop in 1998. This incident focused national attention on the practice of racial profiling-stopping drivers solely on the basis of their race-by state police, a practice prevalent across the country. The governor of New Jersey has admitted that racial profiling is commonplace.2 Yet, in September 1999, Governor Gray Davis of California vetoed SB78, a bill that would have mandated collection of racial and ethnic data on all traffic stops.3

In Los Angeles, a former member of the Los Angeles Police Department, convicted of stealing eight pounds of cocaine from a police evidence locker, told investigators that in 1996 he and a for­mer partner intentionally shot a gang member at point-blank range, paralyzing him, and then planted a gun to makeit appear that the shooting was in self-defense.4

Since this case first came to light in September 1999, the growing scandal has implicated much of the LAPD, a force long notorious for abusive and excessive behavior in Black and Latino communities. While no officers have been indicted, forty criminal cases had been overturned by the district attorney's office as of February 2000, and the police concede that at least ninety-nine others have been tainted.5 The FBI, the United States attorney, and the state attorney general have all begun criminal investigations into police brutality in the LAPD. Lawsuits filed by those wrongly prosecuted are expected to cost Los Angeles in excess of $200 million.

In New York City, where the conduct of the NYPD was the sub­ject of a federal investigation by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1999, settlements in claims and lawsuits alleging police brutality reached a record $40 million that fiscal year alone. The number of complaints increased by 10 percent, to 2,324, the highest figure in a decade.6

Yet much of America remains in denial about the magnitude of police brutality, reflecting a historical pattern that continued throughout the twentieth century. Occasionally, as in the Diallo case or the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian American who was beaten and then sodomized with a broken broom handle by a police officer, Justin A. Volpe, in a Brooklyn, New York, police precinct, the sheer violence and horror of the crimes creates a sense of mass outrage and leads to mass activism. Police officers are actually indicted, tried, and possibly convicted. This, alas, rarely occurs.

Such public outrage and judicial action appears to demand a spe­cific set of circumstances. The victims must have a spotless record. They must not be involved in any altercation that might attract the police. Ideally they should not drink or smoke and should be straight and devout. The circumstances of their abuse and demise must be especially heinous. Disturbingly, we seem more able to respond to victims who, while Black, are not African American. Yet even when these circumstances are in place, deaths at the hands of the police will likely go largely unnoticed and unpunished.

The notion of the "Black male predator" is so historically rooted in the American consciousness that we have come to accept the brutal­ization and murder of citizens by the police as an acceptable method of law enforcement. The assumption is that Black men are the bad guys, the police are the good guys, and if the police killed someone it must have been for good reason. They must have done something.

This attitude, ingrained since slavery, is nurtured and manipulated by the police, who are quick to release the prior-arrest or medical records of their victims, as if getting a speeding ticket, or jumping a subway turnstile, or being a graffiti artist, or smoking marijuana, or being mentally ill, or serving time in prison for any reason whatso­ever, somehow justified being killed by the police.

As a result, the Black community is inured to police violence. Abusive behavior on the part of the police has become common­place; we are used to the small harassments. According to a 1997 joint report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice, while men, Whites, and persons in their twenties Were most likely to have face-to-face contact with the police, His­panics and Blacks were about 70 percent more likely to have contacts with the police as Whites were. An estimated 500,000 people were hit, held, pushed, choked, threatened with a flashlight, restrained by a police dog, threatened or sprayed with chemical or pepper spray, threatened with a gun, or subjected to some other form of force. Approximately 400,000 were also handcuffed. Men, minori­ties, and people under thirty represented a relatively large percent­age of those handcuffed. Of those who had face-to-face contact with the police, 1 in 430 alleged that the police threatened or used force.7

In short, abuse by the police is common in Black, Latino, and other minority communities, and, as a result, the price of our out­rage, the ante, has been insidiously upped. We too need a more per­fect or egregious victim to transform our outrage into activism.

As for those who attract police attention because of some sort of aberrant behavior, their brutalization is treated as an appropriate response-the police go unpunished and the incident is quickly forgotten. Kevin Cedeno, shot in the back while holding a machete and running away from the police. Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly, mentally ill woman, killed by police who broke into her apartment to evict her for rent arrears. Lewis Rivera, a homeless man sitting and eating at a shopping mall, was chased by at least five police officers, sprayed with pepper spray, kicked, thrown to the ground, bound hand and foot, and dragged to a police car; he died less than an hour later in a holding cell.

Anthony Baez, who paid with his life for the crime of accidentally hitting a police car with a football. Or Tyisha Miller, unconscious in her broken-down car at night at a gas station with a gun on her lap, shot twelve times by cops a relative called to help her. Or Gidone Busch, a mentally ill man high on marijuana, talking to himself and allegedly brandishing a hammer, shot by police twelve times. Or Margaret Laverne Mitchell, a fifty-five-year-old mentally ill homeless woman shot by a police officer after she allegedly lunged at him with a screwdriver. Or Daniel Garcia Zarraga, shot and killed after police said he lunged at them with that ubiquitous "shiny object." Or Yong Xin Huang, sixteen, shot at close range behind his left ear after what police allege was a struggle over an air gun. The list of similar victims is extensive. With the exception of Police Officer Francis X. Livoti, Anthony Baez's attacker, who was acquitted of criminally negligent homicide but subsequently convicted of federal civil rights violations and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, no police officer has been charged with any of these murders.

The majority of cases of police brutality-whether occasioned by Black people driving on an interstate, or laughing with friends on a street corner, or waiting for a subway or bus, or simply being Black and walking to the store-go unpunished. We live in a country in which many Black and brown communities define themselves as under siege, not only by poverty, miseducation, and crime but also by the police. In need of protection, we are instead given an army of occupation.

Meanwhile, White Americans too often remain surprised, at best insisting that what happened to Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo is exceptional. Most Whites believe that Louima and Diallo are excep­tions-good Blacks-and that there is in the police department no sys­temic problem, just a few rotten apples who need to be thrown out.

All Americans pay an enormous price as a result of these divergent and extreme attitudes. Police misconduct toward people of color is a cornerstone of the perpetuation of racism and White privilege. Fear, indifference, paranoia, passivity, rage, alienation, and violence are a few of the by-products of living in a society in which we are victims of, or silent partners in, abusive, brutal, and racist behavior by the police. Such behavior rends the fabric of democracy, not only for the immediate victims of police violence arid their families, but for all of our neighborhoods, towns, and cities and for the whole nation.

According to a 1999 report from Amnesty International, United States of America: Race, Rights and Police Brutality,
...the organization documented patterns of ill treatment across the USA, including police beatings, unjustified shootings and the use of dangerous restraint techniques to subdue suspects. While only a minority of the many thousands of law enforcement officers in the USA engage in deliberate and wanton brutality, Amnesty International found that too little was being done to monitor and check persistent abusers, or to ensure that police tactics in certain common situations minimized the risk of unnecessary force and injury. The report also noted that widespread, systemic abuses had been found in some jurisdictions or police precincts. It highlighted evidence that racial and ethnic minorities were disproportionately the victims of police misconduct, including false arrest and harass­ment as well as verbal and physical abuse.s

Given the existence of these intransigent racial and social prob­lems, I felt that I as a writer and a community activist needed to do more than respond to each new incident as it came along. It grew clear to me that the entire issue of police brutality has become a cru­cible that reflects both the continuing despair and the anger of the community. Indeed, the political ramifications of continued police harassment and violence take us way beyond the initial encounter that may occur in the privacy of one's house, in the street, in a car, or in a police station. Therefore, I felt that by examining the issues in this sort of literary manner, I could make all Americans more aware of these divisive and deeply entrenched problems. After all, recogni­tion is the first step on the long road of transformation.

I specifically sought out a wide range of essayists, drawing voices from the academic community as well as a broader community. My intention all along has been not only to provide an opportunity for Black Americans to speak out but also to present a great diversity of opinions.

Accordingly, each of the essays in Police Brutality explores a differ­ent aspect of the issue in an effort to understand how America reached this current situation-and how we extricate ourselves from it. Essays examine the roots of the police presence in African Ameri­can communities from the era of slavery until today, as well as the ways in which race and crime are framed and how the racialization of crime justifies and perpetuates police brutality. A twenty-nine­-year veteran of the NYPD offers a view of police misconduct from the inside looking out, while an urban planner and former member of the Black Panther Party details his politicization as a twelve-year-­old boy after being kidnapped by the police. A historian places the surveillance of the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad by the FBI and the Chicago police within the framework of police brutality, while an attorney examines the ways in which the legal system codi­fies and encourages it. A political and constitutional rights activist discusses both recent responses to police brutality and ways in which the police force might be transformed.

Each of the essays in Police Brutality brings critically needed light to the subject of the banally abusive and often violent relationship between the Black community and the police and the White com­munity's ignorance of, indifference to, or tacit sanctioning of police misconduct. Each makes clear the price all Americans pay when any are denied their constitutional rights. Each essay suggests, directly or indirectly, possible remedies. As a whole, this collection of essays makes clear that police brutality toward African Americans and other people of color is, like slavery, part of the birth of this nation-
                  real, systemic, and devastating to all of us.

In a booklet entitled Persecution of Negroes by Roughs and Police­men, excerpts of which are included in this book, a fifteen-year-old boy named Harry Reed states in his affidavit, one of many given by African Americans victimized by mobs of White citizens and police officers in New York City,

We five boys were sitting on the seat of an open Eighth Avenue car. When we got at the corner of 37th Street and Eighth Avenue we saw a mob, and the mob called out, "There's some niggers; lynch them:" and they made a rush for the car, and I jumped out. Then I ran up to the corner of 38th Street, where there were four policemen. Of these four policemen three were standing on the corner and one ran into the street to stop me. When he saw me coming I was running hard, as fast as I could. When I reached this policeman in the street, he hit me over the head with his club. He hit me twice over the head, and I saw the other three policemen coming, and I fell down. I thought if I fell down the others would not attack me, but they did; they hit me over the legs and on my arm, when I raised it up to protect my head, and they hit me in the back. ... I wanted to get protection, but instead the cops hit me, as I have told. I did not resist arrest and I did not struggle to get away from the cops. I only wanted to get away from the mob. ... I did not even try to run away after I had been hit. I was afraid to run, because I knew if I did they would hit me again.9

Harry Reed's affidavit is dated August 22, 1900. And little has changed in a century.

The hope is that Police Brutality will not suffer the fate of its pre­decessors, become another report to be read, clucked over, and put aside to gather dust. Rather, it should be read as a challenge to each of us to change the way we think about the issue and an inspiration for each of us to take action.

Now that would be something!
1. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York:

  1. P. Dutton, 1968),299,305.
  2. New York Times, September 8,1999, see. B, p. l.
  3. Ibid., September 30, 1999, see. A, p. 20.
  4. Ibid., September 26,1999, sec. I, p. 32.
  5. Ibid., February 24, 2000, see. A, p. 12.
  6. Ibid., October I, 1999, see. B, p. l.

7. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice, Police Use of Force: Collection of National Data (Washington, D.C., 1997),4.
8. Amnesty International, United States of America: Race, Rights and Police Brutality (New York: Amnesty International USA, 1999), 1.
9. Persecution of Negroes by Roughs a1(d Policemen, in the City of New York, August, 1900, 73-74.