HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Contributing Factors
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In looking at human rights violations common to most of the cities examined, we found:

  • Weak Civilian Review: Citizen review agencies, tasked with monitoring and, in some cases, investigating cases of excessive force, are under-funded by city officials, undermined by police officers who refuse to cooperate with them, under attack by police unions and others, and under-utilized by the public. External citizen review should be an integral part of police oversight and policy formulation, but instead has been sidelined in most cities examined.

  • Leadership Failure: Police administrators, the officials most responsible for addressing the problem of police abuse, are not yet taking this issue seriously enough. Notably, in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, among othercities, high-profile cases and unflattering media attention have been required to produce overdue and necessary reforms. The leadership gap is evident in the poor performance of police departments' internal affairs divisions around the country, which too often conduct sloppy and incomplete investigations that tend to be biased in favor of fellow officers. Early warning systems to identify and manage "problem officers" are not fully operational in most cities we examined - despite findings by oversight commissions and journalistic investigations that a small percentage of officers are responsible for a large percentage of abuses. Disciplinary actions against officers responsible for abusive treatment are lax, while internal review activities remain shrouded in secrecy.

  • Ineffectual Civil Remedies: In part because police often are not held responsible for their actions through administrative or criminal procedures, many police abuse victims or their families rely solely on civil remedies for redress. In practice, civil lawsuits usually allow police departments to continue to ignore abuses committed by officers. Some victims have succeeded in obtaining compensation, and a small percentage of civil lawsuits have forced police departments to accept liability for abuses, leading to reforms in training or flawed policies. Still, most police departments we examined do not have to pay plaintiffs; the payments come instead from the city's general budget. And, though an officer's behavior has cost a city hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars in payments to victims, there is often no linkage to that officer's performance evaluations - even when the lawsuit alleges serious violations. In the end, taxpayers are paying at least twice for bad officers - once for their salaries and again to pay victims of their abuse.

  • Passivity on Criminal Prosecutions: Local criminal prosecution of officers who commit human rights violations is far too rare, with many local prosecutors unwilling to prosecute vigorously officers who normally help them in criminal cases. Federal prosecutors, who can prosecute officers under criminal civil rights statutes, almost never pursue even strong cases, due in part to the high legal threshold required to win such cases and a shortage of resources. Of the thousands of complaints the Justice Department receives annually, it prosecutes only a handful. And, though federal prosecutors claim they should play a "backstop" role in prosecuting officers who commit human rights violations, they rarely do so even when local prosecutors decline prosecution or do a poor job in presenting a case.

When all of these systemic shortcomings in dealing with officers who commit human rights violations are combined, it becomes understandable why they have little reason to fear that they will be caught, punished, or prosecuted.

Recent police abuse scandals clarify that lack of will at the top of police departments is permitting abuses to recur. For example:

  • In Philadelphia, a recent scandal uncovered widespread police corruption, often accompanied by brutality - which was tolerated by both police officials and prosecutors - and, as a result, scores of criminal cases that relied on corrupt officers' accounts have been overturned, while public distrust of the police is pervasive. Taxpayers have shouldered the burden of tens of millions of dollars paid out in police misconduct civil lawsuits against the city over the past four years. Some of the lawsuits' settlements or jury awards following trial are directly related to the recent scandal; others stem from the general damage done to the department's reputation, making jurors more likely to find in favor of plaintiffs alleging abuse and the city more eager to settle such cases.

  • In New Orleans, 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. These recent scandals followed decades of outrageous behavior. In recent years, 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; this officer also killed an off-duty policeman working at the restaurant.

  • In New York, abuse complaints climbed after the police began aggressively pursuing petty criminals in 1994, with serious on- and off-duty abuses reported regularly. Major police corruption scandals, recurring every twenty years, led most recently to the independent Mollen Commission's investigation of corruption, highlighting its link to brutality. But many of the commission's recommendations, issued in July 1994, have not been implemented as of this writing. Several recent abuse cases, including the alleged torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in August 1997, have led to heightened tensions.29 And it is an open question whether an officer who unlawfully kills a suspect will be convicted; only three New York City police officers have been convicted for an on-duty killing in the last twenty years.30

  • In Los Angeles, following the March 1991 beating of Rodney King and the April 1992 acquittals of the four accused officers on all but one of the state charges, rioting erupted, sparked in part by frustration over the lack of accountability for officers. The Christopher Commission's ground-breaking 1991 report, which called for a "new standard of accountability," has led, very slowly, to reforms. But the force still falls short in many areas, as noted in the first reports released during 1997 by the Police Commission's inspector general. (In an indication of the sluggish pace of reform, it took five years to fill the inspector general's position.)

  • In Indianapolis, a small riot erupted in July 1995 after the alleged beating of a drug suspect, and in an August 1996 incident, officers allegedly yelled racial epithets and beat and sexually harassed citizens, making front-page news. These incidents led to resignations of two successive chiefs of police in a city where police leadership is desperately needed.

29 In response to the public outrage surrounding the Louima case, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani created a task force to examine police-community relations in the city and to make recommendations for improvements. Yet once the task force reports were released, the mayor immediately criticized the findings and recommendations. His reaction appeared to be extremely counterproductive and may have lost him support fromthe task force, made up of activists, clergy members, community leaders and attorneys. Dan Barry, "Giuliani dismisses police proposals by his task force," New York Times, March 27, 1998.

30 Former Transit Officer Paolo Colecchia, who had been convicted for second-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Nathaniel Levi Gaines, Jr. in July 1996, was sentenced to one and one-half to four and one-half years in prison in July 1997. A New York Housing Authority officer was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in August 1995, for a fatal shooting that occurred in March 1992, before the housing authority merged with the NYPD. In 1977, Thomas Ryan was convicted of criminally negligent homicide for beating to death Israel Rodriguez in July 1975; the Ryan homicide conviction was the first ever recorded in the city of an on-duty policeman.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch