The indictment of five New York City police officers in the death of a young Hispanic man, coming on the heels of the nationwide broadcast of a videotape showing 13 Los Angeles policemen beating an unresisting suspect, has understandably alarmed citizens across the nation.
While the public outrage is appropriate, police brutality requires serious study in a sober atmosphere.In the case of New York City the following suggestions are one way to begin.
- More leadership from Police Commissioner Lee Brown and high-ranking police brass is needed.
Two decades ago Frank Serpico blew the whistle on police corruption.
The result of the Knapp Commission hearings was a commitment to root out corruption.
There has never been a similar commitment by the department to root out brutality and abuse.
- Better training of police officers.
Members of the New York City police force are generally young and not adequately prepared to deal with police abuse, race relations, homophobia and first-amendment protest.
Officers should be educated about and exposed to the cultures and lifestyles of the people who make up New York's mosaic.
It also is essential to improve the training of recruits in the use of firearms.
Moreover, there should be ongoing training and evaluation after graduation from the academy.
- Create an independent special prosecutor for allegations of police abuse.
Special prosecutorial expertise, independent investigations and elimination of local political pressure are prerequisites to a fair prosecution of police officers.
Because the nature of a prosecutor's job is one of daily reliance on local law enforcement officers, there is a conflict of interest in the current process.
Effective prosecution of an officer may endanger the working relationship between a prosecutor and the police.
- Create an effective watchdog agency.
At present, police officers and employees of the department investigate and determine the validity of allegations of police abuse; the review board functions as a unit of the police department.
There are 12 board members: six civilians appointed by the mayor and six high-ranking civilian employees of the department appointed by the police commissioner.
The board should be made up of 12 citizens appointed by the mayor and other elected officials.
Fifty-one investigators are presently employed by the review board. Thirty-nine are sworn officers; only 12 are civilians.
Often Lieutenant X or Sergeant Y interview the complainant and investigate a complaint against Officer Z. Cops should not be policing cops.
Furthermore, the review board should be established outside the Police Department.
Other cities, such as San Francisco, Miami, Atlanta, Washington, Chicago, San Diego, Detroit and Cincinnati have more civilians involved in the process than New York.
The city should model its own board on the most effective aspects of each.
Between 1985 and 1989, 24,651 allegations of police misconduct were filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
In response to public concern about New York City's rising crime rate Brown has invested his hopes in deploying more officers in "community patrol."
But such an approach will not work if citizens do not trust the police.
Too many New Yorkers feel they cannot obtain justice when a police officer harasses them, uses racial or homophobic slurs, beats them up or even kills a friend or relative.
Too often they are right.
In a democratic society that is intolerable.