Police brutality in America: These are not isolated incidents

Cathy Reisenwitz Editor-in-Chief, Sex and the State
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Just last week, several police officers in Stockton, California beat a mentally disturbed man during an arrest, one officer putting a knee on his head and another pulling him by his braids. Earlier this month a police officer beat an Iowa shoplifter so brutally that she was carried to the hospital in a stretcher and left her with sustained vision impairment. The beating happened in front of her daughter. The Minneapolis Police Department is currently facing 61 lawsuits regarding allegations that officers used excessive force that led to injuries.

These are not isolated incidents. There are many reasons why America has a problem with police brutality. First, police departments are not required to report instances of abuse at the federal level. And most cities and states have no reporting requirements either. Data is so sparse that the Office of Justice Programs cites a study that is more than 13 years old, only covers two years, and was paid for by the country’s oldest police chiefs union to counter claims of out-of-control use of force by officers.

But according to journalist Mike Riggs, the biggest contributor to the problem of officers’ use of excessive force is a piece of legislation called the “law enforcement bill of rights.” He  describes its sole purpose as “to shield cops from the laws they’re paid to enforce.”

Riggs tells the story of Officer Edward Krawetz of the Lincoln Police Department, who became famous after a still from a surveillance camera showed him kicking a seated woman with her hands cuffed behind her in the head. Though he was convicted of felony battery and sentenced to ten years in prison, his sentence was immediately suspended, and he did not lose his job.

As Rise of the Warrior Cop author Radley Balko reported, a Florida police officer named Kevin Kilpatrick is alleged to have committed a DUI and attempted to cover up domestic abuse. Charges have not been filed. Kilpatrick was on paid leave for seven years, receiving full pay and benefits, plus annual raises. Taxpayers have been put out more than a half million dollars.

What happened? Both times the department tried the fire Kilpatrick their decision was overturned by an arbitrator, and then by a federal judge, for violating agreements in the union-negotiated police contract.

Obviously police officers have tough jobs and have to make tough decisions. It’s reasonable that they don’t want every decision second-guessed by people who don’t understand the situations they face. And of course they don’t want decisions to terminate officers made without thorough review. But thorough, informed review should not mean secretive boards or special privileges.

Communities are stepping up with their own solutions to these problems. In New York City, where last week a federal judge ruled the NYDP’s thousands of racially discriminatory street stops were unconstitutional, the city has appointed a monitor to ensure changes are made. New Orleans has hired a private law firm to help implement changes meant to combat brutality and corruption so intense and widespread it drew attention from the Department of Justice, a first for a city police department. In Fullerton, California the citizens recalled three city council members who chose to cover up an incident where officers beat a schizophrenic homeless man to death.

These are all good moves. But before, after, and in addition to hiring monitors and law firms and recalling council members, we need laws that make it easier to fire officers who abuse citizens.

Authorizing officers to use violence on citizens requires an extreme amount of trust. Young people are especially suspicious of bestowing trust on organizations that have proven to be opaque in their reporting, manipulative and unclear in their claims of appropriate use, and supportive of efforts to make holding abusers accountable more difficult. In every state, the “law enforcement bill of rights,” should be replaced by a review process which quickly and effectively gets dangerous officers off the street.