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Civilians Versus Police: Policing those with Power

April 27, 2009

The original and ultimate goal behind establishing a police force was to serve and protect the people. Each and every day, we entrust our immediate security to the police force and thus we have given them an enormous amount of power. Unfortunately, the mission to serve and protect sometimes becomes blurred, and the power of law enforcement is misguided and abused. We as Americans can’t be expected to feel “safe” if our protectors are spending more time with violation enforcement than actually protecting our neighborhoods from danger.  The idea is to exert the full wrath of the law on dangerous and violent criminals, not upon harmless citizens for petty violations.  To date, the police force remains unchallenged and has not taken full responsibility for these moments of overexertion and the common misuse of power. In order to reduce police misconduct, we as civilians should establish local review boards with the power to monitor, review, and prosecute officers to provide accountability and restore trust in the community.

      Some of the most unjust actions taken by a police officer involve exerting excessive and/or deadly physical force on innocent and non-threatening citizens. According to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, “Police forces have paid out more than 44 million in compensation …for wrongful arrests, assaults, malicious prosecutions and abuses of human rights” (Lexis Nexis). The American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to Louisiana’s Attorney General about a case in which Baron DeAundrae, who was already in police custody, was tasered unnecessarily no fewer than nine times by police officers. The excessive electrocutions resulted in DeAundrae’s death (ACLU).  The letter’s purpose was to urge the Attorney General to prosecute those involved as the way they would with anyone engaging in such violent misconduct. Often times those who hold power hold enough power to get pardoned regardless of which law is broken. This is where a civilian review board would prove effective. It is important to remember that “A police department can formulate [its own] model policies aimed at deterring and punishing misconduct, but those policies [are] meaningless unless a system is in place to guarantee that the policies are aggressively enforced” (ACLU).  In response to DeAundrae’s case and similar cases, we need to first increase awareness about the nature and frequency of these incidents, and then make an effort to help the family of the victim find justice.  With a civilian review board in place, a panel can seek facts and prosecute any police officers responsible for misuse of power, and thus prove that the “Police… [are] accountable for their actions just as others are” (ACLU).

      Of course, not all police officers are involved in such harsh treatment of the citizens they claim to protect. Some police officers abuse their power in other ways, through verbal harassment or making wrongful arrests. In 2007 in the Bronx, New York “two high school teachers…were arrested, handcuffed and verbally abused by the New York Police Department without cause after they questioned police officers handcuffing students who had been involved in a fight” (ACLU). The teachers, a married couple, merely questioned why the police men were handcuffing the students since the fight had already been broken up. The city agreed to give both teachers $60,000 to settle the case; however the officers who arrested them were not disciplined. Had the case been reviewed by a civilian board, perhaps the innocent teachers would have more peace of mind knowing that such events would not occur in the future. That peace of mind is hard to obtain since there is “evidence of defects in the way [police] forces keep their records. More than half did not keep accessible records of claims, complaints or court cases. Others kept no separate record of damages awarded to victims of police misconduct, recording only total damages” (Lexis Nexis). The civilian board review concept has many functions that aid this problem. For one, a board can collect the complaints and grievances that the people have and work on doing an investigation. The police have been known to withhold information as with any institution with something to hide, but a civilian review board may work through the system to gain “complete access to police witnesses and documents through legal mandate or subpoena power” (ACLU). The review board system is a much more honest system when headed by civilians and it allows for the voices of the complaints to be heard and not just thrown away or discreetly settled with money.

      One of the biggest complaints citizens have about the police force deals with racial profiling and ethnic discrimination. The U.S. Human Rights Network released a report to confute the report the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination did, saying “A disproportionate number of minorities are arrested, charged, prosecuted and convicted, and minorities are over-represented in US prisons” (Lexis Nexis). Some may find this data to be coincidental, however there is often a distinct correlation between cities that are heavily populated with African-Americans and the number of African-Americans who were wrongfully murdered, arrested, or imprisoned. In April of 2001, tensions rose in Cincinnati between the police force and the overwhelmingly black community after “a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas. Three days of demonstrations and rioting followed” (NPR).   Peculiarly enough, the facts noted in the NPR article describing the situation point out disproportion and underrepresentation of blacks since “Cincinnati is 43 percent black [and] the police department is 28 percent black…[Also] Timothy Thomas [was]  the 15th African-American male to be shot and killed by Cincinnati police” (NPR). The discriminatory pattern of excessive police shootings combined with the uproar of Cincinnati’s residents suggests that racial inequality is present. A civilian review board can work effectively to monitor and investigate the way officers handle citizens. As a group the board can obtain information “about police firearm discharges…repeat shooters…[and] information on the race of persons shot and wounded or killed…[all which can] evaluate the use of deadly force in [a] department” (ACLU). If the people have the information that should be legal to get hold of, they can work within the system to make sure that the officers involved in misconduct are either dismissed or disciplined accordingly.  Furthermore, a review board can work to diversify the number of minorities working in the police department as well as “their distribution through the department’s ranks” (ACLU). “This information is useful in assessing… the ‘culture’ of [the] local police department — is it internally diverse, fair and equitable? It also suggests how much value the department places on the ‘human relations’ aspects of its work, and how responsive it is to community concerns” (ACLU). Of course, if minorities are equally represented in a police department, cases of racial prejudice may wind up being curbed.    It is a shame to see our protective force perform so unprofessionally.  As Americans it is our duty to act civil and enforce that action when it appears otherwise. We cannot simply sit back and watch our law enforcers abuse their power — remember that their objective of enforcing the law is secondary to the important idea — to serve and protect.  Overly aggressive police officers and those who cherry pick who they will protect next are not following the main idea at all.  Civilian review boards at the local level are one solution to cutting down on excessive enforcement, wrongful accusations and racial prejudice. It unifies and empowers the citizens in a town or city, giving them more accessibility and responsibility, and a better eye to watch the wrongdoers when injustice is at hand.  With that, justice, equality and trust can hopefully be accomplished.


by JenniFlashFive

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