HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Summary and Recommendations:

Investigation and Discipline
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External pressures are essential to force police leaders to improve chain of command control of officers who commit human rights violations. But police brutality will subside only once superior officers judge their subordinates - and are judged themselves - on their efforts to provide sufficient and consistent oversight, appropriate administrative discipline and, when necessary, punishment of the perpetrators of abuse. There is no substitute for police leadership to make clear to new as well as veteran officers that human rights violations are not acceptable. The highest-ranking commanders must also hold to account superior officers who are found to have ignored or tolerated abuses committed by officers under their command. The current, longstanding and pervasive tolerance of abuse within police forces, which has been noted by specialized commissions, remains a crucial impediment to reducing police brutality.

Internal affairs divisions must be central to any examination of how police departments deal with abusive behavior by officers. Therefore, it is alarming that no outside review, including our own, has found the operations of internal affairs divisions satisfactory. In each city we examined, internal affairs units too often conducted substandard investigations, sustained few allegations of excessive force, and failed to identify and punish officers against whom repeated complaints had been filed. Rather, they, in practice, often shielded officers who committed human rights violations from exposure and guaranteed them immunity from disciplinary sanctions or criminal prosecution.

In many cases, sloppy procedures and an apparent bias in favor of fellow officers combine to guarantee that even the most brutal police avoid punishment for serious abuses until committing an assault so flagrant, so unavoidably embarrassing, that it cannot be ignored. Three major investigations and reports into police department misconduct in recent years (in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York) harshly criticized the operations of internal affairs units, blaming them for a climate of impunity that fostered human rights violations or corruption.

Even when police departments do try to hold officers who commit abuses accountable, many avoid dismissal or severe disciplinary sanctions because officers are provided with many opportunities to fight punishments; in many cases they prevail, thus sending a signal to fellow officers that they may not be held accountable no matter their actions.

Police officers accused of human rights violations or other misconduct are often protected by special law enforcement officers' "bills of rights," providing for specific protections for officers accused of misconduct. These special statutes have been initiated by police unions and their supporters in state legislatures, and in many states help to shield officers from appropriate punishment. Some of the "bills of rights" allow, for example, for the purging of officers' personnel files of all butsustained complaints; even the rare sustained complaint may be purged after a set number of years in some states; these files are required to appropriately discipline or dismiss officers in the future. The police unions, which provide legal counsel for accused officers, also negotiate contracts for police officers that make discipline or dismissal of officers difficult for police officials to accomplish - even in cases where sanctions are clearly appropriate. While officers are entitled to full due process safeguards, many of the protections they currently enjoy are exceptional and, in practice, undermine police leaders' efforts at accountability.

In some cities, police officers are afforded extensive protections as civil servants (government employees) so that strong disciplinary sanctions, including dismissals, are often weakened or reversed. In some cases, officers appeal directly to the courts when they are dismissed. In other cities, arbitration - a process relied upon to resolve disputes between officers and the city - typically serves to stack the deck further in the officers' favor. When a police department seeks to dismiss an officer, he or she may appeal the dismissal order and an arbitrator is appointed to decide whether the punishment should stand or not. The person chosen as the arbitrator is agreed upon between the police union and the city, but in practice the arbitration process usually favors the officer seeking reinstatement. Police unions provide experienced attorneys to represent the officer, while cities are often represented by far more junior and inexperienced attorneys who argue to uphold the dismissal. As described in this report, there have been many cases involving officers against whom repeated brutality complaints have been sustained, where the police department has sought to dismiss the officers, yet they have been reinstated, often due to minor technicalities, by arbitrators.

The apparent lack of collective official will to control officers who commit human rights violations- and to require all police forces to abide by the law and the police departments' own policies - is evident in the lack of linkage among various entities responsible for overseeing the police and for criminally prosecuting officers who break the law. Although prior to filing a civil lawsuit many plaintiffs will have already filed a complaint with the police department's internal affairs unit or citizen review agency, this is not always the case. When a complaint has not been filed, the filing of a civil lawsuit alleging violations of human rights by police should trigger an investigation by the relevant civilian review agency or internal affairs division; yet this occurs in only four of the cities we examined (including Los Angeles, which changed its policy in 1998). Some city attorneys "notify" the relevant internal affairs unit, but no investigation is automatically initiated, and in other cities, the city attorney's office fails to notify the department in a formal way at all.

Indeed, in most cities, even when the municipal government pays out large settlements or jury awards to the victim as a result of a civil lawsuit for brutality, there may not be an investigation into the incident by the police department. Theremay not even be an indication in the officer's personnel file that such a lawsuit was filed or settlement or jury award paid (or, if there is an indication, it may have no negative effect on his or her chances for promotions or positive performance reviews). Similarly, citizen review agencies do not track civil lawsuits in most cases. Thus, the wealth of information normally found in such lawsuits, and the enormous cost of abuse to city budgets (and thus the taxpayers), go unexamined.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch