I wish to praise the articles by John Conroy, "Town Without Pity," and Michael Miner, "Cops Want Watchdogs Leashed," which appeared in the Reader January 5. Both articles were timely and informative. They examine the recurrent problem of police brutality, and how public officials treat police use of excessive force lightly.
I am convinced that police brutality is a national problem. It is more widespread than most people realize. As Conroy and Miner point out, however, this problem is consistently ignored by the media, city and police leaders, and the general public. One major reason it's ignored is because the vast majority, about 80 percent, of police brutality victims are African-Americans and Latinos. Unfortunately, a problem is not defined as a "social problem" in the U.S. until it affects middle-class, white Americans. And police do not usually brutalize whites because they are afraid of their political influence.
I recently researched and published an article looking at police brutality in five cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston ("Police Brutality in African-American and Latino Communities," The Latino Studies Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3, Sept. 1995, pp. 30-47). Interestingly, police and city officials nationally label the charges of police brutality as exaggerated and unfounded. Moreover, they claim it's minor, that citizens waste valuable time complaining about simple things like "handcuffs on too tight." But these same police and city officials refuse to allow researchers and the public to examine their records of citizen complaints about police brutality. This "code of silence" insulates police from public accountability.
Yet police internal affairs divisions, civilian review boards, and community police watchdog groups across the country annually receive from several hundred to several thousand complaints from citizens alleging police brutality. Over the last three years, the number of annual citizen complaints of police brutality is significantly increasing in the five cities I looked at. And police brutality is not as rare and minor as police would have us believe. Civilian review boards and watchdog groups like Citizen's Alert see many cases where innocent people are seriously beaten up by police. Many victims require hospitalization treatment and stitches after being beat on the head or face with police nightsticks, fists, blackjacks, metal batons, and flashlights. Some have black eyes, lacerations, and sometimes broken bones. Others are choked, slapped, dragged, and hurt with handheld electronic stun guns.
Cities are paying staggering millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements to individuals each year because of police brutality. These extremely high payments suggest that police brutality is of a serious nature and has increased significantly from previous years. For example, New York paid $85,060,906 from 1990 to 1994 to individuals largely for police brutality. Los Angeles paid $45,961,363 from 1990 to 1993. Dallas paid $40,624,626 from 1992 to 1994. Chicago paid $23,386,304 from 1990 to 1994. These cities are paying between $3.1 and $17 million each year to citizens in verdicts and settlements due to police brutality. Houston officials adamantly refused to release payout figures. City officials, of course, do not admit wrongdoing in verdicts and settlements. But why would these cities pay out such large sums of money if citizen complaints of police brutality were frivolous?
Ironically, instead of implementing reforms to prevent police brutality, cities seem to believe costly verdicts and settlements against them is the price paid for aggressive law enforcement. Ultimately, taxpayers pay for police misconduct. Instead of improving their civilian review boards, some cities, as Michael Miner states, are dismantling them. Thirty-two of the largest 50 U.S. cities have some type of civilian review board (CRB) that receives citizen complaints about police brutality. Over the last 30 years, African-Americans and Latinos pressured many police departments to adopt civilian review boards, hoping these boards would penalize abusive police. Yet, despite the thousands of complaints received annually, CRBs sustain only between 4 and 11 percent. The rest are not sustained, exonerated, or unfounded. Can it be that hundreds of thousands of citizens each year are lying about police behavior? Or could it be that most supposedly independent CRBs are part of the police and city-hall power circle and side with police over victims? African-Americans and Latinos have lost faith that CRBs objectively investigate police brutality complaints.
Bravo to Conroy and Miner for bringing attention to this important problem. But until police brutality is seriously dealt with by government officials and police departments, African-Americans and Latinos can only continue suspiciously watching the watcher. They can only continue complaining loudly about police brutality. Perhaps, one of these days, someone will listen.
Columbia College Chicago