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In a report Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States , Human Rights Watch accuses local governments and federal officials of failing to address a common human rights abuse in the United States: police brutality.

The 440-page report charges that shoddy internal investigations do not hold police officers accountable for abusive acts, and that criminal prosecutions rarely result. Civilian review agencies lack the funding and access they need to monitor police adequately. Some cities pay tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in civil lawsuits alleging brutality, rather than addressing the underlying problemsThe report is based on research conducted in fourteen cities over a two-year period and found several problems common to all of them. The cities are: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles , Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

"Police departments like to claim that each high-profile abuse is an aberration, committed by a `rogue' officer," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But these human rights violations persist because the accountability systems are so defective."

Abuses such as unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and other forms of brutal physical treatment have been reported in cities throughout the United States. These abuses, and officials' unwillingness to curtail them, are violations of international human rights treaties by which the United States is bound. They are also violations of most police departments' policies, and state and federal law. Furthermore, they are a betrayal of the public these officers are sworn to serve.

Data on police abuse is very hard to obtain. Internal affairs units operate under a cloak of secrecy and are reluctant to release even basic information about their activities. In 1994, Congress instructed the Justice Department to compile statistics and produce an annual report on the use of excessive force nationwide. Nearly four years later, no such report has been published.

Human Rights Watch offers the following recommendations for reform:

  • making federal aid to police departments conditional on regular reporting about the use of excessive force, and on improvements in oversight and discipline
  • creating, among police and political leaders, a policy of zero tolerance for abuses
  • establishing early warning systems to identify "at-risk" officers and remove those who commit abuses
  • providing adequate funding and political support for civilian review agencies
    hiring special prosecutors in each state to handle criminal prosecutions of police.

In the cities where such data are available, minorities have alleged human rights violations by police more frequently than white residents, and far out of proportion to their representation in those cities. Police have subjected minorities to apparently discriminatory treatment and have physically abused minorities while using racial epithets.

The Abner Louima case in New York last year, in which a Haitian immigrant claimed officers sodomized him with a stick and beat him, shocked the world. The officers who knew what happened were unwilling to report the incident immediately or to come forward with information later, and the alleged perpetrators apparently believed that they would get away with this egregious act even though it took place in a busy station house. "While many American cities, and even foreign countries, look to New York as a model of effective policing, the city also offers a model of how not to run a system of accountability," said Roth.

Habitually brutal officers - usually a small percentage of officers on a force - may be the subject of repeated complaints but are usually protected by the silence of their fellow officers and by substandard internal police investigations. Their violent histories emerge, and are addressed, only after they commit an abuse that is so flagrant, so unavoidably embarrassing, that it cannot be ignored. And even if the individual officer is appropriately disciplined eventually, the officer's superiors - who should have intervened to curtail the abuses - typically escape scrutiny or any disciplinary actions.

In practice, civil lawsuits actually allow police departments to ignore abuses committed by officers. Damages paid to victims do not come from the budget of the police department or officer personally: in almost all cases, the city pays any settlement or jury award. In most cities, no investigation is triggered by the filing, the settlement or the judgment relating to a lawsuit against an officer, no matter how severe the allegation. The officer's performance evaluations are usually unaffected.

Criminal prosecution of police officers is rare. Local prosecutors are reluctant to pursue cases against officers accused of human rights violations because they typically work closely with police to prosecute criminals. Winning such cases can be difficult, due to victims who may be criminals themselves and many juries' tendency to believe police accounts. Federal prosecution of officers under criminal civil rights statutes is also rare. In Fiscal Year 1996, for example, out of 11,721 total complaints received by the Justice Department's civil rights division, only thirty-seven cases involving law enforcement officials were presented to a grand jury, with a total of twenty-nine convictions or pleas.

"Local and federal prosecutors just aren't doing the job of going after officers accused of human rights violations," said Roth. "State governments need to appoint special prosecutors if they want to address these terrible crimes."

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