Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Great Police Violence Cover-Up

It’s a federal law, but most departments refuse to divulge data on cop shootings.

"I have a 20-year-old son, and I have a 12-year-old son, and I’m so afraid for them. … This is about a war machine. It is us against the [expletive] machine!" 

—Rapper Killer Mike


Perhaps the saddest thing is: We don’t really know what the truth is. We don’t really know if Killer Mike—his voice breaking on stage this week after the Ferguson grand jury decision—is correct in his perception that America’s police departments are less protectors of the peace than monstrous “war machines” leveled against the nation’s poor and minorities.


Certainly we are seeing those kinds of sentiments expressed in protests in cities across the country, which are so reminiscent of previous bursts of inner-city rage—after the 1991 beating of Rodney King in L.A., or the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York. But no one knows for sure how serious the problem is—now, or then—because there simply are no reliable national data on police violence in the United States. The data are lacking because police departments keep almost all those numbers to themselves, in defiance of a 20-year-old federal law—the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—requiring the Justice Department to compile an annual report on “the use of excessive force” by police.

The story of the various failed national efforts to compile and release such data—or to obtain any reliable numbers on violence by police officers at all—is just another dimension of an issue that Monday’s grand-jury decision threw into relief: a sense that police departments across the country are simply not held accountable enough.

Whatever the particular circumstances that led a grand jury to decline to indict Darren Wilson, police officers are typically given the benefits of all doubts in the use of force and are rarely prosecuted, criminologists and other experts say. And because a substantial portion of these alleged police abuses of law and justice appear to be directed against blacks and other minorities in certain communities—not the white-dominated power structure in their own communities—it rarely becomes a notable issue, at least until a Michael Brown-type killing provokes enough violence and outrage in the streets for the TV cameras to pay attention.

All we have is anecdote, rumor and innuendo of the kind that came out after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown. Statistically, it is rare for a police officer to be indicted, much less convicted, for the use of violence. According to Bowling Green University professor Philip Stinson—who recently submitted a research project funded by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) titled “Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested”—in the seven years from 2005 to 2011 there were only 59 arrests of on-duty police on charges of aggravated assault with a gun recorded in the entire country. Of those, only 13 resulted in convictions. Why so few? “Police work is by nature violent, and the on-duty violence of police officers is rarely regarded as criminal—even when it is,” says Stinson.

Stinson says he was able to compile these numbers only through the sophisticated use of Google’s news search engine, bypassing unreliable and tightly held police department data. Little else exists in the way of truly national data. The FBI’s
Uniform Crime Reporting Program collects data from the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country to compile statistics about crime and law enforcement, and yet here too police departments are not required to submit data on what they consider to be justifiable homicides by officers.

But given the average number of dubious shootings in any given year—most recently the killing of a 12-year-old boy wielding a BB gun in Cleveland—many criminologists say it’s clear that there is a serious problem, especially in minority neighborhoods, that has not been quantified. “If there’s smoke, there must be fire there,” says Sam Walker, an expert on police accountability at the University of Nebraska.

Despite
the high incidence of so-called "black-on-black" crime that has led some law-enforcement officials to justify a heavy police presence in minority neighborhoods, the issue is not necessarily racial. “It’s not a black or white issue. It’s a blue issue,” Frank Serpico, the former New York City detective whose efforts to expose corruption were made famous in a 1973 movie starring Al Pacino, said in a telephone interview. “The fact is that police have never been accountable,” said Serpico, who in the decades since his retirement from the NYPD has become an advocate for police whistleblowers and greater restraint on the use of force. “In my day, and I’m sure it’s true today, they used to say a district attorney could indict a ham sandwich if he really wanted to. But they didn’t get that in Ferguson. So what erupted in Ferguson is not just about Ferguson. This thing has been a long time coming.”

According to another widely cited criminologist, Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida, “It’s not just about when force is used. There is a lot of variation in this country about how police treat low-income, high-minority neighborhoods. There are places where police treat them very, very differently than they do white communities.” She adds that “police have gotten better over the years, but also expectations might have gotten higher.”

It was the furor surrounding the 1991 Rodney King incident that eventually led to the 1994 federal law requiring an annual report on police violence. At the Justice Department’s request, the International Association of Police Chiefs conducted a pilot study. But according to John Firman, director of development of the IAPC, after a year “the Justice Department shut it down, and for good reason: The number of [police departments] reporting back to us was under 600” out of about 18,000 in the country. The law had no means of forcing cooperation, Firman added, and as for whether the government is simply ignoring the mandate of the law, “that was between the Congress and the DOJ.”

Asked to comment, a Department of Justice spokesperson said that to comply with the 1994 law, the NIJ and Bureau of Justice Statistics later developed something called the Police Public Contact Survey, which is “designed to understand the nature and characteristics of citizen contacts with the police. Data are collected from a nationally representative survey of nearly 90,000 residents age 16 or older, including information on face-to-face contacts with the police, including traffic stops, arrests, handcuffing and incidents of police use-of-force.” Justice plans to conduct the next survey in 2015, but many criminology experts do not consider these efforts to be reliable measures of police abuse. “The survey doesn’t answer any of the questions being asked now about the type of data people want to know: the deaths resulting from police officers’ actions. How many are charged, how many convicted,” says Stinson.

Fridell puts it more bluntly: “You can’t measure the use of deadly force by surveying citizens, because they’re dead.”

Other criminologists have found that even when they participate, law enforcement agencies often misrepresent data in survey responses. “On nonsensitive subjects we usually get a high response in our surveys,” says Edward McGuire, a criminologist at American University. “But then on questions about the use of violence we get a very low response rate. That’s because they had been advised by their attorneys not to answer those questions.”

Bowling Green’s Stinson says that to create his own survey on police violence, he had to “think outside the box.” He realized that by using Google News’ search engine, which would vacuum up every newspaper of record at the county level, and by setting up an elaborate system of Google alerts he could develop a massive database of cases in which police were arrested and prosecuted.

Even if the national data were better, however, it would not be all that easy to track cases of abusive violence, says Fridell. “Even if all those police departments submitted their data, how would you determine what is excessive versus what is justifiable in a legitimate way?” she says. In the case of the Ferguson grand jury, that was very much the question: While Wilson fired 12 shots, which might seem excessive, it’s also clear the jurors decided that he had been attacked and threatened. “We can’t measure everything we want to measure,” adds Fridell. “How would you know if it’s excessive even if you had an external review? You’d still be basing your conclusion on the police officer’s own account.”

She and other experts say the real answer to restoring accountability may lie in technology, especially sensors and body-worn cameras for police officers. Despite some current resistance, most officers like that solution too, she says, because most of them probably have nothing to hide. “The police profession is unlike any other in that officers usually operate outside the direct review or purview of supervisors in most cases. So this is a way to document not only what the police are doing—but what the subjects are doing as well.”

Starting with the Rodney King beating, it has often been the occasional citizen video that has been the most effective means of holding police to account. 
According to a survey of body-camera studies sponsored earlier this year by the Department of Justice, far more research is needed on whether they are effective, and the idea of mandating their use raises privacy issues, among other problems. But the survey did note that “body-worn cameras increase transparency and citizen views of police legitimacy,” and it quoted William A. Farrar, chief of police in Rialto, California, as saying: “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better. And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”


Source:
http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/11/the-great-police-violence-cover-up-113190.html



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