Behind Police Brutality: Public Assent
To the extent that language provides cues for behavior, the orders that American governors, mayors, police chiefs and block association presidents have been giving cops on the beat in big cities over the past few years are unambiguous.
As James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, notes, these officers have been told that they form the front line in a "war" on crime and a "war" on drugs, that they have been enlisted in special "operations" and drafted for bold new "offensives."
"We use all these paramilitary terms," Fox said, "and we have promoted somewhat of a siege mentality among police: The enemy is out there, and there are more of them than we thought."
Fox paused, sighed and added, "When you have this sort of mentality, excessive brutality and improper actions are more likely to occur."
Fox's comments root out what is indisputably a dirty little secret embedded in the public angst over police brutality: many Americans have come not only to tolerate a degree of it from their police officers but also, in ways subtle and unsubtle, to encourage it.
That is not to say that Americans are untroubled by such glaring examples of excessive force as the beating of Rodney King by police officers in Los Angeles; the torture of Abner Louima by police officers in a Brooklyn station house or, most recently, the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, in a fusillade of police fire this month in the Bronx. In each case, race became an issue.
Just about everybody would agree that if these flagrant episodes were the unintended outgrowths of aggressive policing -- and it is by no means certain that they were -- then the price for such a modus operandi is exorbitant in the extreme.
But too frequently omitted from discussions of police brutality that attend these cases is the fact that many Americans have tacitly blessed a more vigorous, invasive, belligerent brand of policing. And the line between law enforcement that is aptly forceful and law enforcement that is unduly brutal or abusive can be thin indeed.
"Sometimes, it's in the eye of the beholder," acknowledged former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton. "That's part of the dilemma that police find themselves in."
The problem is not confined to the nation's police departments. It also confronts the politicians who help supervise them and the taxpayers who fund them. Underlying it is the age-old tension between public safety and civil liberties. The question now is, can the "zero tolerance" crime policies that have come into vogue over the last decade be executed and achieved without the trampling of innocent people's rights?
The "zero tolerance" policy, which has been given a showcase in New York City, holds that no crime -- not the breaking of a window, not the jumping of a turnstile -- is too insignificant to capture the swift, decisive attention of the police. Prosecute more petty offenders ...