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Police Brutality Essay, Research Paper

In the past decade, many police departments have adopted a new theory that says serious crime can be reduced by controlling minor disorders and fixing up obvious signs of decay or litter. The theory is called broken windows, after a 1982 Atlantic Monthly magazine article by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The article argued that when low-level quality-of-life offenses were tolerated in a community, more serious crime would follow. According to this view, broken windows, abandoned buildings, public drinking, litter and loitering cause good people to stay in their houses or move out of the neighborhood entirely, leave criminals free to roam and send a message that law violations are not taken seriously. The theory’s biggest test has been in New York City, where a dramatic decline in crime has been attributed in large part to “order maintenance.” Rundown parts of the city have been cleaned up, and police focus more on such problems as panhandling, turnstile jumping, and public drinking. Police have even cracked down on people who clean the windshields of cars at stoplights with squeegees (Parenti 77). Among the first and hardest hit were the homeless, who travel, beg, and live in the political and physical basement of the class system: the city s six-story-deep concrete bowels. During the mean, hot summer of 1990, hundreds of these so called mole people were driven from the nooks and crannies of the A and E lines (Parenti 74). Advocates of such tactics argued that in order to address these crimes, the police must be afforded wide discretion and should not be hamstrung by constitutional rules. Still “broken windows” enforcement has won a proper place among trends in criminal-justice reform. But in doing so, the police ignored the principal lesson of their own theory. If the toleration of minor law violations leads to more serious crime on the street, it would also follow that the toleration of minor law violations by the police will lead to more serious crime on the force. And that is precisely what has happened.

To justify a stop under the Supreme Court s Terry decision, a police officer must have a reasonable suspicion of some wrongdoing. In determining reasonableness, an officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts that warrant the governmental intrusion; reliance on inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or [a] hunch is not permissible. Furthermore, the scope of any resulting police search must be narrowly tailored to match the original reason for the stop. The Court emphasized that a search must always be strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justif[ied] its initiation. In Terry, the Court identified the police officer s safety as the primary purpose for the search, and concluded that a frisk is permissible if a reasonably prudent man in the circumstances would be warranted in the belief that his safety or that of others was in danger (Cornell Law 3) However, this case established the legal precedent that police officers could draw conclusions based on their experiences to ascertain if an alleged suspect s conduct is an indication of criminal activity. If a police officer surmises that an individual s conduct is ambiguous, then the officer can briefly detain the person and conduct a limited search for the safety of him/herself and others.

Throughout his time as mayor, Giuliani has shown his disdain for civil rights and his eagerness to impose law and order at all costs. When Giuliani took office in 1994, he instituted his “zero tolerance” policy, which led to a huge increase in arrests for such crimes as playing music too loudly, biking on the sidewalk, and public drinking. Some officers got the message that it was OK to rough people up (Progressive 2). Amnesty International has received disturbing allegations of the ill treatment of suspects, deaths in custody and unjustified shootings by officers from the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in the past few years. Although reports of police brutality are not new, the number of people bringing claims for police misconduct against the City of New York has increased substantially in recent years, from 977 in 1987 to more than 2,000 in 1994. The amount paid out by the city each year in settlements or judgments awarded to plaintiffs in police abuse cases has also risen, from $13.5 million in 1992 to more than $24m in 1994 (Amnesty International 1). The alleged brutality occurred across a wide area of New York City and involved victims from a variety of social, racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, the most serious complaints tended to be concentrated in high crime precincts and in precincts with large minority populations. More than two-thirds of the victims in the cases examined were African-American or Latino and most, though not all, of the officers involved were white. Nearly all of the victims in the cases of deaths in custody (including shootings) reviewed by Amnesty International were members of racial minorities (Amnesty International 5). According to press reports, the city paid about $70 million in settlement or jury awards in claims alleging improper police actions between 1994 and 1996. The New York City Law Department reports that police misconduct, described as assault/excessive force, assault and false arrest, shootings by police, and false arrests (as categorized by the city’s Law Department), cost city taxpayers more than $44million for fiscal years 1994-95; this works out to an average of almost $2 million a month for police misconduct lawsuits alone. And it represents an increase over the three previous years, when the city reportedly paid a total of $48 million in these types of cases. In addition to an increase in amounts paid in recent years, the number of brutality claims has tripled in a decade, to 2,735 between June 1996 and June 1997, according to city Comptroller statistics.

Between June 1996 and June 1997, the city settled 503 police misconduct cases, taking only twenty-four to court, where it won sixteen. Yet, as far as reforms are concerned, settlements provide little public information about incidents of police misconduct and there are few repercussions for an officer who is the subject of such a lawsuit, for which the city pays (Human Rights Watch, 2).

On July 4, 1996, Nathaniel Levi Gaines, Jr., was shot in the back and killed by Officer Colecchia on a Bronx subway platform after Gaines had been frisked and Colecchia knew he carried no weapons. The victim was black; the officer was white. Colecchia had a history of complaints – three for excessive force in 1994; all had been found unsubstantiated, though he was found to have given false statements to superiors investigating the complaints (Human Rights Watch 2). In the early morning hours of August 9, 1997, police officers arrested Abner Louima, a legal Haitian immigrant, outside a Brooklyn nightclub following altercations between police and club goers. During the trip to the station house, officers allegedly stopped twice to beat Louima, who was handcuffed. At the 70th Precinct station house, two officers, Justin Volpe and Charles Schwarz, allegedly shouted racial slurs and Volpe allegedly shoved a wooden stick (believed to be the handle of a toilet plunger or broom) into Louima’s rectum and mouth. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the fourteen officers who were either arrested, suspended, transferred or placed on desk duty in the week following the alleged torture of Louima had been accused, among them, of eleven prior unsubstantiated excessive force complaints and of another five misconduct complaints that had been ruled inconclusive or resolved through conciliation (Human Rights Watch 1). On December 22, 1994, Anthony Baez, age twenty-nine, was playing football with family members at the Baez home in the Bronx. When the ball hit a parked police car more than once, one of the officers in the car, Francis X. Livoti, reportedly became angry and arrested Anthony’s brother, David Baez, for disorderly conduct. When Anthony Baez told Livoti to calm down (Livoti later claimed Anthony pushed him), Livoti allegedly used a chokehold, resulting in Baez’s death. Livoti reportedly had been the subject of at least eleven brutality complaints over an eleven-year period. He had been in the force’s monitoring program because of these complaints, but then was removed from the program. A PBA lawyer said of Livoti, he is “what you want more of in the Police Department: an honest, dedicated, decent young man” (Human Rights Watch 2). The shooting of William Whitfield on December 25, 1997 by Officer Michael J. Davitt uncovered the disturbing fact that an officers’ records on shooting incidents had not previously been tracked or subject to review. Officer Davitt reportedly shot and killed Whitfield, who was unarmed. Officers were responding to a report of shots being fired when Whitfield, who reportedly was uninvolved in the incident to which the officers were responding, did not obey the officers’ orders to stop and entered a store. Officer Davitt claims he believed the keys or hat Whitfield was holding were a gun and shot him. After the incident, it was discovered that Davitt had been involved in more shootings than any other officer on the city’s force, shooting nine times in fourteen years. Davitt reportedly had also been the subject of twelve unsubstantiated complaints (Human Rights Watch 4). People who admit that crime is decreasing because of these policies are only being self-defeating because if they admit that crime is down because of these policies, then they can use the same policies on the cops to improve police conduct. Yes, broken windows does reduce crime, but if an uncivil society breeds criminals, certainly a belligerent police force breeds police brutality.

To what extent can police brutality be explained by “turning the police loose” with order maintenance tactics? Many civil libertarians and advocates for the homeless, for example, oppose order maintenance because they believe it infringes on the liberties of selected populations (the poor, minorities, the homeless, and youths) and opens the door to abusive police practices. The debates about these issues have been vigorous and often rancorous. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. They are in housing projects, at traffic intersections, and on subway platforms, with plans constantly announced to add more. There are undercover quality-of-life police squads who ride the subways, busting people for fare skipping or even for placing their bags on the seat next to them. The police sweep down on the homes of “suspected drug dealers” and people they mistakenly think are dealing. A simple tip from a snitch can send cops to knock down the door and toss in a stun grenade. One family in Brooklyn had cops bust in and handcuff the entire family–including a mentally retarded teenager who was showering. They let her cover up with a robe but refused to give her a sanitary napkin, though she was clearly menstruating

Police officials need to focus on the substantive content of police work; find and delineate the means to conduct police work morally, legally, skillfully, and effectively; then structure and administer departments on the basis of this literal work and not a fictionalized view of police work.


Human Rights Watch. Shielded from Justice: New York: Civil Law Suits. 24 Feb 2001 http://www.hrw.org/reports98/police/uspo104.htm

Human Rights Watch. Shielded from Justice: New York: Incidents. 24 Feb 2001 http://www.hrw.org/reports98/police/uspo102.htm

Amnesty International. United States of America Police Brutality and Excessive Force in the New York City Police Department. 24 Feb 2001 http://www.amnesty.it/AIlibtop/1996/AMR/25103696.htm

Parenti, Christian. Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. London: Verso, 1999 Police Brutality Must End. The Progressive 64 (2000): 8-11

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