(MintPress) — Anaheim, Calif. police shot and killed two male suspects last month, prompting weeks of protests by residents incensed by what has been described as “police brutality” and “blatant misconduct.” Police killings and cases of misconduct have increased in recent years, prompting some to blame a culture of discrimination and abuse of power present […]
(MintPress) — Anaheim, Calif. police shot and killed two male suspects last month, prompting weeks of protests by residents incensed by what has been described as “police brutality” and “blatant misconduct.” Police killings and cases of misconduct have increased in recent years, prompting some to blame a culture of discrimination and abuse of power present in some police departments.
These sometimes aggressive police tactics have contributed to an incarceration rate in the U.S. that is 10-times that of Denmark, Norway and other industrialized European countries. The U.S. also maintains the highest rates of illegal drug use in the entire world, according to the World Health Organization.
The often tenuous interface between police and public, many contend, is also influenced by policy decisions at the local, state and national level. Tough-on-drug policies and expanded police powers have resulted in a higher arrest rates and thousands of reports of misconduct by officers.
Is police culture to blame?
Indeed, the problem appears to be widespread, according to the CATO Institute, a Libertarian public policy think-tank. In its 2010 National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, the CATO Institute found 4,861 “unique reports” of police misconduct involving 6,613 victims.
There were 247 fatalities associated from these tracked reports. “Excessive force, sexual misconduct and fraud/theft” were reported as the most frequent types of police brutality in the report, accounting for over 40 percent of the abuses.
The findings are confirmed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has consistently tracked cases of police brutality while offering legal assistance to victims of police crimes. In a September 2010 post on its website, the ACLU writes:
“Despite a growing professionalism, a culture of lawlessness persisted in police departments across the country throughout much of the 20th century, and many in law enforcement acted with impunity when it came to pursuing and arresting criminal suspects. It was most often the poor and people of color who suffered from police mistreatment and abuse.”
Technology and the rise of citizen journalism
Other groups, including the Police Complaint Center and Copblock.org, are part of a growing trend of activists and citizen journalists using cameras to record police abuses. The practice has risen considerably in recent years as cell phones equipped with camera phones become widespread, allowing any citizen to quickly film officer abuses.
In a recent example, Ademo Freeman was arrested and now faces 21 years in prison for recording a conversation with a high school principal, secretary and a local police officer after a student at the school filmed a police officer assaulting another student in a New Hampshire high school last month. While Ademo claims he told the public officials that he was a journalist, the three interviewed say they were not aware he was recording the conversation.
Previously, during the height of the Occupy movement, many activists recorded aggressive, heavy handed police tactics during the arrest of protesters.
In a few rare cases, video recordings widely viewed on YouTube show officers assaulting completely passive, peaceful protesters. Eleven students holding a peaceful sit-in at the University of California Davis campus November 2011 were pepper-sprayed by two UC Davis officers, prompting broad condemnation from the campus community.
The event was recorded by student cell phone cameras, eventually leading to the dismissal of one officer involved in the event.
U.S. citizens do have a constitutionally protected right to film any officer on duty performing his job. However, the practice is often met with hostility by police officers who may later face abuse charges.
Watchdog groups acknowledge that police abuses have declined some since the 1966 Supreme Court Miranda v. Arizona decision requiring officers to repeat the constitutional rights for individuals being arrested.
Policy dictates conduct
Others believe that police misconduct is rooted in a policy seeking drug arrests, rather than addiction treatment, as one of the main causes of the growing problem.
Experts point to the Reagan War on Drugs as a case in which specific government policies gave police directives that institutionalized racism against communities of color in the U.S.
Dismantling the much maligned “welfare state” in the name of lower taxation and fiscal solvency by many accounts also increased the homeless populations and rates of untreated mental illness.
The crack cocaine epidemic was an acute problem during the 1980s, devastating mostly African-American communities. Reagan policies punished possession of crack cocaine 100-times more harshly than free-base cocaine, a drug consumed at similar levels in white collar American communities during the same time.
On a chemical level, the two substances are virtually identical, motivating the legal system to arrest and prosecute African-American criminals at a higher rate than their white counterparts because crack cocaine arrests were given higher value than arrests for other drugs.
Studies conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that white Americans use illegal drugs at higher rates than African-Americans, Latinos and other racial groups.
In 2002 Kenneth B. Nunn wrote about this issue in an article published in the Journal of Gender, Race and Justice called, “Crime and the Pool of Surplus Criminality: or Why the ‘War on Drugs’ Was a ‘War on Blacks.’”
On this issue, Nunn writes, “In 1982 there were approximately 400,000 incarcerated persons. By 1992, that number had more than doubled to 850,000. In 2000, there were over 1.3 million persons in prison. During that same period, the total number of African-American arrests for drug abuse violations skyrocketed from 112,748 to 452,574, an increase of over 300 percent.”
These policies continue today with New York City’s Stop and Frisk laws, allowing officers to stop, pat down and physically search anyone they believe may be holding contraband. The law has lead to an increase in petty drug arrests, mostly of African-American and Latino youth, but has yielded few high level arrests for drugs and weapons charges.
Indeed, the United States has the largest prison population in the entire world today. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. claims 25 percent of the world’s prison population, according to the International Center for Prison Studies at the University of Essex. The high incarceration rate has continued despite record decreases in violent crime nationally over the past 30 years.
Tough on drugs and private prisons
Some believe the overall increases in the prison population are tied to the rapidly increasing number of private, for-profit prisons in the U.S. “Tough-on-drug policies,” designed to make streets safer and decrease drug consumption, have done little to affect drug use across the U.S.
This is tied to the growing number of for-profit prisons which see increased profits from ever-expanding facilities due to a larger number of arrests and prison sentences, many of which are for entirely non-violent drug possession offenses. The share of prisoners housed in for-profit facilities increased to more than 128,000, a 37 percent increase from 2002-2009, according to a Mother Jones article published in June.
Many drug policy experts look to Portugal as a model for reform. The Western European country had some of the highest drug addiction rates in Europe during the 1990s. In response to the problem, elected officials opted to decriminalize all drugs including “hard” drugs like cocaine and heroin.
By most accounts, the policy was a success, with Glenn Greenwald, an attorney who conducted the research for a study of drug policy by the CATO Institute, saying, “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success. It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”
Portugal now boasts lower rates of teen drug use and sharp drops in the transmission of HIV and other diseases due to the use of dirty needles. At the same time, the rates of individuals seeking treatment for drug addiction doubled since the law went into effect in 2001.