Allegations of police abuse are widespread, but lacking official statistics documenting incidents, citizens have stepped up to fill the gap.
For Andrea Prichett, the reality of police misconduct didn’t sink in until she saw it with her own eyes.
“I started to explore the issue and began hearing all kinds of stories that were hard for me to believe. We took it upon ourselves to watch the police. We would find the red and blue lights, just stop and be a witness, write down the badge numbers of the officers and any details of the event. It became clear to me that we had a real problem with police accountability and lack of it. Officers feeling like they could treat people in ways that really violated their constitutional rights,” Prichett, founder of Berkeley Copwatch, told Mint Press News.
Allegations of police misconduct are widespread, with thousands of claims across the U.S. each year. The Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, one of the most comprehensive research projects examining incidents of police brutality in the U.S., found 4,861 unique reports of police misconduct involving 6,613 sworn officers and 6,826 alleged victims in 2010.
Cato recorded 1,575 officers involved in cases of police brutality. In most cases, the incidents involved police throwing punches or hitting victims with batons, but one-quarter of cases involved firearms or stun guns.
At times, the use of physical force has led to the deaths of victims, prompting a backlash from citizen watch groups.
Investigating police abuse
One recent incident covered by Berkeley Copwatch, a citizen patrol group active since 1990, involved the death of a transgender woman named Kayla Moore. Moore, a drug addict and paranoid schizophrenic, died while in police custody in February. Advocates of police accountability believe her death was caused by forceful police response during an arrest.
“Kayla Moore died in police custody in her own home after officers responded to calls for a mental health evaluation and told that person she was under arrest for a warrant that wasn’t really valid,” Prichett said. “The person objected and a struggle ensued and this person who was already paranoid schizophrenic, well known to the police department, now finds herself face down on her own futon with six cops on top of her. So of course when she stops breathing and dies in their custody, they say, ‘Oh well, she’s a drug addict and she’s overweight.’”
Moore was reportedly high on methamphetamine and wanted to borrow money from her roommate. When he refused, Moore became belligerent, causing him to call the police. Earlier this month, the Alameda County coroner’s bureau ruled that Moore died because of “acute combined drug intoxication,” prompting Moore’s family to call for a new independent investigation.
“Clearly that sort of response by the police to somebody who is paranoid schizophrenic and has major health issues had to have contributed to her death,” Prichett said.
Allegations of police abuse like this are widespread, but few government statistics exist documenting incidents of abuse. The Department of Justice conducted a 2006 inquiry into police abuse using 2002 data. The findings showed that although many claims of abuse were deemed “unfounded” or thrown out, at least 2,000 cases of credible police abuse occurred across the U.S. in 2002.
“During 2002 large State and local law enforcement agencies, representing 5 percent of agencies and 59 percent of officers, received a total of 26,556 citizen complaints about police use of force,” the report concluded. “About a third of all force complaints in 2002 were not sustained (34 percent), 25 percent were unfounded, 23 percent resulted in officers being exonerated, and 8 percent were sustained.”
Some citizens, unsatisfied with the internal review of police department reviews, have formed volunteer police watch groups in an attempt to break the the “Blue Code of Silence” — an alleged bond preventing individuals within the police force from speaking out against misconduct.
Limits of recourse
Even in some cases where individuals present seemingly clear video evidence indicating excessive use of police force, disciplinary boards have failed to punish officers for any wrongdoing. During the height of Occupy Wall Street protests, Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old Iraq War veteran, suffered a skull fracture during protests in Oakland, Calif.
Eyewitnesses believe a tear gas canister was fired at Olsen at point-blank range. As other demonstrators tried to carry him to get medical treatment, the police continued to fire tear gas. Nearly two years later, no officers have been disciplined for what happened, although the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild filed information requests to push for a thorough review in October 2011.
Some involved in the documentation of police brutality note that there are limitations, even when clear video footage of abuse is presented.
“It think [the video footage] shows real promise of an accountability mechanism. The problem is that you don’t know when the video starts and when the video ends,” said Bill Dobbs, press liaison for Occupy Wall Street, to Mint Press News.
In April, the Manhattan district attorney decided not to prosecute two high-ranking New York Police Department officers for pepper-spraying and punching Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011 — events that Occupy activists claim were acts of police brutality against non-violent protesters.
Onlookers recorded video of the incident, showing NYPD deputy inspectors Anthony Bologna and Johnny Cardona using pepper spray against against non-threatening protesters associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“After a thorough investigation, we cannot prove the allegations criminally beyond a reasonable doubt,” said the district attorney’s chief spokesperson, Erin Duggan.
“The civilian review complaint board in New York City is more or less an internal process. The prosecutors have to rely upon the police to make their case. People have called for an independent review. What comes out most often is money judgments, not policy change,” Dobbs said. “Very rarely do police pay anything out of their own budget. Why is this so hard? Because the police enjoy wide support. It is a politically powerful institution.”
Empowering citizens: documenting the police
The use of cameras on mobile phones has provided citizens with a powerful tool to track police activities and report misconduct.
In response, many citizen watchdog groups have formed to patrol their neighborhoods and watch the police. It’s a right protected in every state, allowing citizens to film police doing their jobs in a public.
“We are victims of a growing police state. My experience is particularly with the war on drugs,” said Ademo Freeman, founder of Copblock.org, to Mint Press News.
“In my early teens I was arrested for distributing marijuana and bought into the whole paradigm that I was a drug dealer and I was doing wrong and I should pay my debt to society,” Freeman said. “I was sentenced to jail time, fined and convicted of a felony. Through this process I learned this system is not about justice. I was in a correctional facility but I don’t recall being corrected of any improper behavior. I remember being controlled. I remember being told what to do.”
“I came to realize in fact that I didn’t harm anybody. I was interacting in voluntary interactions, I wasn’t threatening anybody to purchase a product from me. I wasn’t using any violence. If anything, I was in fact a victim,” he said.
Based on this experience, Freeman launched Copblock.org as an open forum where victims of police misconduct can share their stories and post videos.
“It’s a one-stop shop where people can share their experience, beliefs, tactics and goals for police accountability,” he said.
In its three-plus years of existence, Freeman claims “hundreds of thousands” representing views from across the political spectrum have posted to the website and shared experiences.
“There’s a large amount of people who have had worse — physical abuse, deaths, on and on,” he said.
Other have hit the street with cameras in hand to actively watch the police. It’s an increasingly popular tactic for citizens in major U.S. cities.
Prichett formed Berkeley Copwatch in 1990 after observing police harassment of homeless populations.
“I wanted to work with homeless people and it was clear to me that one of the biggest obstacles for homeless people achieving their goals and getting themselves out of poverty was their interactions with police,” Prichett said.
The project quickly grew as dozens signed up for the regular citizen patrols patrolling Berkeley streets from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. or later on any given night. Although it’s hard to determine whether the police would have behaved differently, Prichett is confident that having at least one person filming and documenting police interactions with the public reduces the risk of misconduct.
“The officers had been instructed to be courteous, it was quite clear. They were instructed to cooperate with us. We would show up at a situation and the officer would walk up, give us a business card with their badge number on it ask us if we needed anything. There were many times when they would have someone in handcuffs and then uncuff them and let them go,” Prichett said.
After observing and filming incidents of misconduct, Berkeley copwatchers take that information and record it in a computer database, which Prichett says now includes “thousands of incidents.” The information is also made available to victims if they press forward with claims against an arresting officer in court or at a police review board.
In some instances, video footage has been used by victims to win monetary settlements for abusive police practices. Derryl Jenkins, a Minneapolis, Minn., resident, received a $235,000 settlement on Monday after the payment was approved by the Minneapolis City Council.
Jenkins filed the lawsuit in February, about a year after he was pulled over in north Minneapolis for speeding. Jenkins claims he was punched, kicked and Tasered by at least six police officers. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Police Chief Tim Dolan ordered police officers to watch the video of the incident and later ordered a review of many arrests that resulted in medical treatment. He disapproved of the officers kicking Jenkins during the incident.