The Persistent Problem of Police Brutality

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There is a widespread and persistent problem of police brutality across the United States. Thousands of individual complaints about police abuse are reported each year and local authorities pay out millions of dollars to victims in damages after lawsuits. Police officers have beaten and shot unresisting suspects; they have misused batons, chemical sprays, and electro-shock weapons; they have injured or killed people by placing them in dangerous restraint holds.

This is the first paragraph of an unprecedented and historic report, USA: Rights for All, issued by Amnesty International (AI) on October 6, 1998. Simultaneously, the organization announced the theme of its U.S. education campaign: "Human rights aren't just a foreign affair."

For many--myself included--this is a long-awaited and irrefutable confirmation of the alarming state of human rights in America. Indeed, this report leaves no doubt whatsoever that American law enforcement agencies--including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the prison system--must be immediately reined in, fundamentally reformed, and held accountable to the citizens who literally entrust them with their lives.

AI's report confirms that the overwhelming majority of victims of law enforcement abuses are members of racial and ethnic minorities, while most police departments remain predominantly white. Relations between the police and members of minority communities--especially young black and Latino males in inner-city areas--are often tense, and racial bias is reported or a factor in many instances. The report continues:

Unarmed suspects have been shot while fleeing from minor crime scenes;

mentally ill or disturbed people have been subjected to excessive force;

police have shot distraught people armed with weapons such as knives or

sticks, in circumstances suggesting that they could have been subdued

without lethal force; victims have been shot many times, sometimes after

they had already been apprehended or disabled.

AI issues a strong warning:

Police officers are responsible for upholding the law and protecting the

rights of all members of society. Their job is often difficult and

sometimes dangerous. Experience from around the world shows that constant

vigilance is required to ensure the highest standards of conduct--standards

necessary to maintai...

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...ine cases, the D. C. police department found the shootings unjustified and then disciplined the officers. However, in five cases that left four people dead and one injured, the sum total of time served by officers was fifteen days in jail.

The total number of fatal shootings since mid-1993 is nine: five were ruled unjustified, one was ruled justified, and three are pending. Since this past May, the district has agreed to pay $775,000 to settle three lawsuits brought by survivors.

In comparison, data collected by the University of South Carolina found that the Metro-Dade Police Department in the Miami area had forty-nine car shootings between 1984 and 1994--less than the district's five-year total, even though Metro-Dade has twice the population, nearly as many officers, and more crime. D. C. police also fired an average of six bullets per car shooting, compared to Metro-Dade's two.

New York police also had fewer shootings than D.C. From 1995 to 1997, D. C. officers fired at cars twenty-nine times to defend themselves against alleged vehicular attacks. In the same period, New York police--with more than ten times the number of officers--fired at cars eleven times.
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