In communities large and small across America, the question of police brutality has eroded the people’s trust in law enforcement. Cases, such as the June 1 report of a cognitive- and hearing-disabled Federal Way, Wash. woman who was beaten by police officers while visiting a friend, or the May 5, 2012 shooting — in the face — of a pregnant woman by an Agawam, Mass. police officer during a response to a suspected break-in that the pregnant woman herself reported, have created a sense that the police are acting above and beyond the rule of law and the expectations of the communities they are sworn to serve.
In response, two filmmakers — Ansar El-Muhammad and Derrick Bowman — chose to spotlight this growing epidemic. “C.O.P.: Crimes Of Police” presents an earnest and at times uncomfortable look at a culture of fear and intimidation in the Black and Latino communities due to a wave of unjustified force, procedural overreach and managerial tolerance for aggressive or intolerant behavior among officers within the police community. The documentary seeks to capture the pain and toil the surviving families of police brutality victims feel and present it alongside the historical context of previous periods of police aggression in the United States and uncensored video of actual acts of police brutality. The documentary forces the viewer to ask how and why law enforcement has moved so far away from its original purpose to serve and protect.
“I think [police brutality] is an institutional problem,” El-Muhammad told Mint Press News. “When I came into this, I was gullible like a lot of others that thought that this was just a bunch of individuals, but these individuals are focusing with a mindset that they know will be backed by those above them. Judges have validated those few that were brought to court by lenient district attorneys; the cases that have gone to court have not been prosecuted to the full extent of the law. It’s an institutional problem, it’s a cultural problem within the police force nationwide, and it is something that must be dealt with as such.”
Law enforcement and civil rights
In the United States, police misconduct statistics are difficult to come by — there are no mandates to require individual police departments to collect such information, and it serves the police departments involved to not have such information readily available to the public. Attempts to measure the problem, however — including the Cato Institute’s “National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project” (NPMSRP) — have shown reasons for concern. According to the 2010 NPMSRP Police Misconduct Statistical Report, between January 2010 and December 2010, there were 4,861 unique reports of police misconduct tracked involving 6,613 sworn law enforcement officers — 354 being agency leaders. 6,826 alleged victims were involved, including 247 fatalities. This resulted in $346,512,800 in misconduct-related civil judgments and settlements.
In December, 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Seattle Police Department did engage in practices of unnecessary or excessive force — almost 20 percent of all departmental use of force was determined to be unconstitutional, displaying behavior leading to perceptions of discriminatory and unlawful policing, failing to offer adequate training, supervision and policy-enforcement in regards to the proper use of force and failing to review cases of police misconduct in an efficient or satisfactory manner.
The report presented multiple examples of Seattle police brutality. “[Two] officers used excessive force against a small woman who had just stolen a purse from a department store,” the report reads. “When the woman tried to walk away from the officers, one officer grabbed her left wrist and the second officer grabbed her right arm. They bent her arms behind her back to try to place handcuffs on her, and the woman began to twist her body in an attempt to escape. Even though each officer had control of one of the woman’s arms, one officer sprayed three to four bursts of OC [Oleoresin Capsicum] spray to the woman’s face and additionally delivered two to three punches to the woman’s rib cage in response to the woman’s twisting of her body and attempts to push herself up from the ground where she was pinned under the officer’s knee. As a result of the officers’ actions, the woman received a cut lip, stitches to her chin, and small abrasions to the right side of her face. These examples illustrate an unreasonable escalation of force in violation of federal law. See Headwaters Forest Def. v. Cnty. of Humboldt, 240 F.3d 1185, 1203 (9th Cir. 2000) (‘[A] rational juror could conclude that the  nonviolent misdemeanor offense of trespass did not render pepper spray necessary to effect the arrests.’)”
Since 2001, the Department of Justice has investigated and has cited police departments for police brutality, including the Alamance, N.C. Sheriff’s Office in 2012, the East Haven, Conn. Police Department in 2011, the Los Angeles, Calif. Police Department in 2001 and 2009, the Maricopa County, Ariz. Sheriff’s Department in 2010, the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department in 2001, the New Orleans Police Department in 2011, the Puerto Rico Police Department in 2011 and the Virgin Islands Police Department in 2005. The move to aggressively investigate police departments for systematic civil rights abuses has differentiated the Obama administration from the Bush administration — which focused more on counterterrorism instead of “pattern and practices” investigations.
The cost of police brutality
In the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, Congress empowered the Department of Justice to sue police departments if a pattern of practices that violates citizens’ constitutional rights — such as excessive use of force, discrimination and illegal searches — was detected. Such a lawsuit can bankrupt a city and strip the city of administrative control of its police force. To avoid this, the police force that has been cited by the Department of Justice would often enter into a voluntary reform agreement with the DOJ to address the issues in question.
“Under the Bush administration, the Justice Department disappeared here in terms of federal civil rights enforcement. You could see the shift to counterterrorism at the ground level after Sept. 11,” said Mary Howell, a New Orleans civil rights attorney who has been working on police misconduct cases for more than three decades. “Now they’re back doing criminal prosecutions of police and the civil rights investigation, which is huge.”
An example of a city that was cited and sued by the DOJ is Oakland, Calif. In 2003, the city of Oakland — as a result of the Riders case, which was a consolidation of lawsuits from 119 different plaintiffs alleging civil rights violations from four veteran cops (the “Riders”) — was forced to pay nearly $11 million to the plaintiffs and submit to a negotiated settlement agreement, in which the city agreed to make changes to the police force.
After a January 17, 2012 report from the independent monitoring team indicated that Oakland made “no improvement in compliance” over the last quarter, the police force was placed in partial receivership, in which a court-appointed monitor now holds administrative control over the police department — including the right to hire and fire staff, including the chief — with input from the city.
This resulted in a broken police force. Oakland now has the highest robbery rate of any American city in the last 10 years, at 1 per every 91 residents in 2012. The city had just one investigator handling 10,000 burglary cases last year. The situation has grown so grave that many Oakland residents hire private security to police their communities. With the city going through three police chiefs in three days in May, it is now hedging its bets on a restructuring plan to change the way the city considers the relationship between the public and law enforcement.
Returning the police to the community
Recently, the nation was horrified to hear that a Miami Gardens teenager — 14-year-old Tremaine McMillan — was placed in choke hold, slammed to the ground, arrested and slapped with felony charges for giving a police officer “dehumanizing stares.”
Tremaine was horsing around with friends at a Miami beach, showing off his new puppy. Two officers of ATVs responded to the boys, assuming they were fighting. When it became obvious that they weren’t, the police ordered Tremaine to take them to his mother. Tremaine said he complied; the police said he didn’t. Regardless, the police slammed Tremaine to the ground, puppy in hand, and arrested him. Spectators caught the arrest on cell phone video.
“As he was walking towards me I see the officers walking behind him with the puppy in one hand and the bottle to nurse the puppy in the other hand,” Tremaine’s mother, Maurissa Holmes, told theGrio, saying the officers grabbed Tremaine. “They slammed him to the ground, they choked him, to where he couldn’t breathe and he urinated on himself. I kept asking them to please get off my child because he can’t breathe. They kept saying ‘get back, get back.’” The police claim that Tremaine pulled away from the officers and clenched his fist, justifying their reaction.
Tremaine and his mother dismiss this, as Tremaine’s hands were full bottle-feeding his puppy. The puppy took damage to his leg from the scuffle. The puppy was ultimately given away, as the family couldn’t afford the veterinarian bill.
Tremaine told theGrio that the situation left him “sad.” According to Tremaine, one of the officers told the boy during the arrest if Tremaine was an adult “all my bones would be broken.”
“It made me feel sad because I didn’t get to have fun or eat with my family on Memorial Day,” Tremaine said. “And for them doing that it make me not like police, period.”
Getting away from the legal argument of if the police officers violated Tremaine’s civil rights, the bigger question is why did these particular police officers, who seems to have minimal training with children and adolescents, responded at all? While a court of law may rule that the police was technically right in subduing the perceived threat, they were contextually wrong in almost all regards in not properly analyzing the situation, not de-escalating the situation and in possibly misreading body language.
In other words, these officers jumped without thinking.
This is what the new Oakland plan is trying to minimize. The Oakland Police command will now be broken up into five neighborhood precincts, each with their own captain and dedicated staff. The idea is to return Oakland to community-oriented policing, or the notion that an officer responding to a situation in a community knows the community, is from that community and is familiar with the people in that community. Most importantly, the people of the community is familiar with the officer.
This would promote a sense of trust. It would give the officer needed contextual information to better read potentially dangerous situations. This will allow for a better rapport between the police and the public. For example, if the two officers in the McMillan case were community officers and knew that a large number of Black teenagers frequented the beach, they wouldn’t have been on edge. They could have easily asked what was going on, read that there was no threat or risk of danger, and moved on.
Ultimately, what this escalation of police brutality amounts to is a lack of sensitivity to the public these police forces serve. Police are trained to deal with situations in well-defined, black-and-white terms: engage the situation, subdue any possible threats, separate and detain and suspects, and release or arrest suspects once threats have been resolved. The problem with this is that people are not black-and-white. Most situations have shades of subtlety and are impossible to completely read on first glance. A police officer who responds to a situation without taking the time to understand the situation or who allows the stress of the job to cloud his situational judgment can be just as much a threat as the situation he is attempting to subdue.
This is a factor of training, of developing clear procedures and policies, of consistent review and of community engagement. This is a consideration of the purpose of the police — not just to stop crimes, but to help ensure the crimes never happened in the first place. This is a conversation that the people must have with law enforcement — a call to return the police to the service of the people.
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