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Police Brutality Essay, Research Paper


It was April 29, 1992 and it was my twelve birthday. My mom gave me a little chocolate cake with a plastic surfer riding a wave on top of it. We were watching television while I was getting ready to blow out my candles. There was a disturbance in South Central Los Angeles that the news helicopters were covering on every channel. There were crowds of people flooding the intersection of Florence and Normandy acting rowdy and getting aggressive toward passing cars. They stopped cars and pulled people out of them. The news cameras were right on top of it all of the way. Reginald Deny was taken out of his semi-truck and severely beaten. You could see people enthused about beating this defenseless man. One man grabbed a brick and threw it at Deny?s head then began to dance with enthusiasm. The majority of the crowd were black and they were harassing any other race that happened to go through their neighborhood. The crowd got out of control setting fire to cars and the violence was quickly spreading to other blocks around the neighborhood. I continued to eat my cake as I watched the news broadcasting the surging violence. The crowd was reacting to the acquittal, just hours earlier, of the four police officers in the beating of Rodney King2 . People couldn?t believe the outcome. The beating of Rodney King was videotaped and shown over and over to the public. People believed that finally there was going to be justice. They believed that there was clear-cut evidence showing what has been complained about for years. Finally people who had never believed the accounts of police brutality existed witnessed it for themselves. Finally the public as a whole could react and try to control the officers that abuse their power. But instead, the officers were acquitted, and the

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public felt betrayed. Especially the black community who was fed up with their complaints falling on deaf ears. They were fed up and they resorted to rioting. For five days the violence persisted and spread further and further out of the ghetto reaching across the borders of the black communities of South Central and into adjacent neighborhoods. The subject of police brutality was thrown into the eyes of the public. People could no longer ignore the problem and the city of Los Angeles was made the example of citizens frustrations in clouds of smoke and looted communities .

Police brutality is defined as ?the unauthorized exercise of police discretion where the policeman acts without the formal capacity to impose legal sanctions? (Rucheelman 133). The officers are given the power to use their best judgment in all situations. The main complaint is that the police often use force that is unnecessary. The police argue that they use force in order to protect themselves. The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics (International Association of Chiefs of Police) begins as follows: ?As a Law Enforcement Officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence and disorder; and to respect the Constitutional rights of all men to liberty, equality, and justice? (Ruchelman 17). It later addresses prejudices and violence stating: ?I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities or friendships to influence my decisions?I will enforce the law courteously

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and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities? (Ruchelman 17). The line between police brutality and the proper force used in any situation is not always clearly drawn. Police officers are in constant danger and need to control people in order to handle certain situations. Police officers need to calculate the amount of force needed as their situations develop. Their are two kinds of police brutality. One occurs when emotions run high for example, during mass demonstrations or riots. The other kind is carried out systematically and regularly in the line of duty and is often times fueled by stress, frustration, racial intolerance or for intimidation. The second type of misconduct is deliberate and calculating and is potentially more disturbing to society because it causes more distrust and animosity between the community and law enforcement (Ruchelman 134).


Police misconduct or corruption has been in the front lines of the news and in the thoughts of citizens since it was officially made public through the lenses of a video camera in the Rodney King beating. Yet, police misconduct has been complained about for years. It is often hard to believe the tales of police misconduct because they are given by people who have committed crimes and have been taken into custody. To prove that an officer has committed a crime, the person would need to convince a court room as well as other officers that an unlawful act has occurred. But the claim would be stereotyped before it was even heard, solely on the grounds that it is coming from an individual that is in a position to say whatever it takes to get themselves off the hook. For example, the

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case of Mumia Abu Jamal, who claims to have been falsely accused and incarcerated for the December 1981 shooting and consequent death of a Philadelphia police officer. According to the World Wide Web site of The Case of Mumia Abu Jamal, police arrested Mumia with false evidence and for the fact that he was a harsh critic of the police department. The police harassed and withheld witnesses and evidence. There were suspects that were never investigated. Mumia was also defended by a court appointed attorney which he disagreed with and who was later disbarred. The facts behind his case make a point that police can use their extensive leverage to create a case that can stick and place a man on death row despite mounting evidence and widespread public support (Bisson 1).

In Los Angeles the police department has been ridiculed extensively since the Rodney King incident, but other complaints have received less notoriety. On July 14, 1995 a jury found Los Angeles County sheriff?s deputies in Lynwood guilty of systematic abuse, brutality, and racism. The class action litigation began in 1990 when mostly black and Latino residents of Lynwood accused deputies of ?systematic acts of shooting, killing, brutality, terrorism, house-trashing, and other acts of lawlessness and wanton abuse of power? (B-1). The Lynwood suit involved fifty residents and seventy deputies. The jury awarded $611,000 to three African American men who were only the first plaintiffs to have their cases heard. This one decision took five years and cost the county $4.9 million in attorney fees alone. The decision only paves the way for other lawsuits which are pending and will soon follow (B-1). This case seems to be a turn in the right direction for the prosecution of officers abusing their powers, but another case that is much more

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publicly visible, due to the media coverage, is the case of the Riverside County sheriff?s deputies who were videotaped beating two illegal immigrants with batons after a high speed chase in 1996 on the Pomona freeway. Riverside County was ordered to pay $370,000 to each of the victims, but the courts refused to prosecute the officers on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to prove that they violated federal civil rights laws (A-15). The Justice Department indicated that the deputies were in violation of policy, but even that was not enough to force legal action against the officers. The decision not to prosecute drew protests from civil rights groups in the United States as well as the Mexican government. The U.S. attorney?s office met privately with Mexican American community leaders in hopes of easing tensions over the decision, but it was to no avail. The president of the Mexican American Political Association, Steve Figueroa, was outraged and heavily criticized Attorney General Janet Reno for refusing to prosecute. Figuoeroa plans to continue to push for the prosecution of the officers and is attempting to organize the public to force action against the police department (A-15).

The animosity blacks and Latinos have toward the LAPD began in the fifties when police chief William H. Parker headed the department. Before Parker the LAPD used ?community-based policing? which allowed the officers to interact with the community by walking through the neighborhoods and getting to know the residents. Parker wanted his officers off the street and into squad cars where they could be aggressive, mobile, and make more arrests. Parker believed in intimidation and discouraging crime before it happened, he called it ?proactive policing? (Corwin 232). Residents in the black and Latino neighborhoods considered ?proactive policing?

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harassment. Entering white neighborhoods they were routinely tailed, stopped, then searched. Without any provocation they complained of being bullied, intimidated, and beaten. Later in the eighties, when police chief Daryl Gates took over the department, ?Proactive policing? was pushed even harder. Anti-gang sweeps resulted in the arrest of ten?s of thousands of black and Latino men, who were never charged with crimes and later released (240). Gates claimed that LAPD officers had to be aggressive because they were outnumbered. The LAPD had the lowest ratio of officers to residents of the nation?s six largest cities and LAPD officers, by using gunfire, killed or wounded more civilians than any of the nation?s largest cities (234). In 1991 Warren Christopher, a prominent Los Angeles attorney, who latter became secretary of the state, headed an investigation into the LAPD in response to the Rodney King beating. The results of the investigation further tarnished the reputation of the LAPD, it concluded that the department was out of touch with the minority communities and tolerated racially motivated brutality. It went on to criticize the department for leniency in disciplining officers guilty of excessive force. The investigation found that officers with numerous complaints against them had these reports left out of their files and were often promoted quickly through the department. The Christopher commission concluded that ?The failure to control these problem officers?? referring to those guilty of misconduct, ?is a management issue that we see as the heart of the problem of excessive force.? (236).


Working in an emergency room in a hospital, I see and speak with sheriff?s deputies on a daily basis. For the most part they are all decent people trying to do their

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jobs and live their lives. When I speak with them they are usually warm, polite, and eager to being open and humorous. I don?t feel intimidated or nervous around them. But, on the other hand when these same deputies approach me on the streets or pull me over in my car they take on a completely different persona. They are often intimidating and they treat you as if you are a criminal and guilty of a crime. I asked a deputy why they act so different out there on the streets and he replied ?because we are scared?. The police have a bad reputation, especially in the Los Angeles area, but the officers are doing little to change that perception. The solution needs to begin with the officers themselves. The officers need to make a conscious effort to show people that they are trying to protect society and that they are not looking to harass people. One option that might be a step in the right direction is to bring back more ?community-based policing? which is recognized as a good way to fight crime and defuse tension in the inner cities (Corwin 232). Knowing residents in the cities, such as store owners and community leaders can only help build a relationship in which each side can try to trust one-another and work together to eliminate crime.

The written guidelines that police officers have for the use of force is outlined in the World Wide Web site of Amnesty International. The officers may only use a minimum amount of force that is necessary to achieve a legitimate purpose. There are five stages in the use of force. (1) Verbal persuasion. (2) Unarmed physical force. (3) Force using non-lethal weapons (mace or pepper spray). (4) Force using impact weapons (batons). (5) Deadly force may be used only when an officer or another persons life is in

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danger (Amnesty International). This is a rough outline of their evaluation of the guidelines, but it seems to be easy steps that can prevent the abuse of power. Another action could be to watch the police more closely through the use of an expanded internal affairs department. The Pittsburgh Police Department, under orders from the federal government, has begun tracking complaints against officers with a computerized system that will notify police supervisors that they may have a problem with certain officers. The police department is highly opposed to such measures calling it ?spying? on the people hired to protect the public(Coates A-14). But the police are constantly ?spying? on people in order to catch them at crimes, so in essence the system is only treating the officers the same as the other residents.

The problem of police brutality is eventually going to be lessened by weeding out people that are not suitable for the responsibility. According to the Police Employment Handbook, to become a California Highway Patrol officer the basic requirements are a high school diploma or GED equivalent, twenty-three weeks of basic training, US citizenship, and ?good moral character?. The annual salary is a minimum of $31,000 and a maximum of $38,000 (15-16). There is no educational incentive pay and the only other means of added salary is to work overtime. The amount of risk that is involved in this line is work is hardly worth the average payment that is received. The patrol officers work twelve-plus hours a day protecting society only to earn as much money as any minimally skilled person at an office job. The police department must get applications from people who are eager to help society or from people who are out to help themselves in an environment in which they can be in control, aggressive, and can get

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away with the use of force by excusing it as part of their job. There are plenty of good people who work in law enforcement, but on the other hand there are plenty that are not suitable for there responsibilities. The government needs to increase the salary of the officers and in turn require higher education. If individuals are motivated enough to help society, by becoming officers and in turn risking their lives to do so, then they deserve to be compensated equally. If the departments start hiring more quality personnel, then they should have less suits filed against them. The money they save by eliminating lawsuits can could be substantial to the amount they would need to increase the officers salaries.


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