Police Abuse 2

Preventing Police Abuse

Page 2

  Above all, this department values the safety of its employees and the public.

 Likewise, it believes that police officers should use firearms with a high degree of restraint. Officers’ use of firearms, therefore, shall never be considered routine and is permissible only in defense of life and then only after all alternative means have been exhausted.

RULE 1: Police officers shall not discharge their firearms except to protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious bodily injury.

RULE 2: Police officers shall discharge their firearms only when doing so will not endanger innocent persons.

RULE 3: Police officers shall not discharge their firearms to threaten or subdue persons whose actions are destructive to property or injurious to themselves but which do not represent an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others.

RULE 4: Police officers shall not discharge their firearms to subdue an escaping suspect who presents no imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.

RULE 5: Police officers shall not discharge their weapons at a moving vehicle unless it is absolutely necessary to do so to protect against an imminent threat to the life of the officer or others.

RULE 6: Police officers when confronting an oncoming vehicle shall attempt to move out of the path, if possible, rather than discharge their firearms at the oncoming vehicle.

RULE 7: Police officers shall not intentionally place themselves in the path of an oncoming vehicle and attempt to disable the vehicle by discharging their firearms.

RULE 8: Police officers shall not discharge their firearms at a fleeing vehicle or its driver.

RULE 9: Police officers shall not fire warning shots.

RULE 10: Police officers shall not draw or display their firearms unless there is a threat or probably cause to believe there is a threat to life, or for inspection.


  Your community’s principal aim here should be to get the police department to adopt and enforce a written policy governing the use of physical force. This policy should have two parts:

(1) It should explicitly restrict physical force to the narrowest possible range of specific situations. For example, a policy on the use of batons should forbid police officers from striking citizens in “non-target” areas, such as the head and spine, where permanent injuries can result. Mace should be used defensively, not offensively. Since electronic stun guns (Novas and Taser) have great potential for abuse because they don’t leave scars or bruises, their use should be strictly controlled, supervised and reviewed.

(2) It should require that a police officer file a written report after any use of physical force, and that report should be automatically reviewed by high ranking officers.

 Your community’s second objective should be to get the police department to establish an early warning system to identify officers who are involved in an inordinate number of incidents that include the inappropriate use of physical force. The incidents should then be investigated and, if verified, the officers involved should be charged, disciplined, transferred, re-trained or offered counseling — depending on the severity of their misconduct. The Christopher Commission’s report on the Rodney King beating ascertained that the Los Angeles police leadership typically looked the other way when officers were involved in questionable incidents. This tolerance of brutality by the top brass helped create an atmosphere conducive to police abuses.


  Police spying, or intelligence gathering, on constitutionally protected political, religious and private sexual behavior is an historic problem. And it’s particularly difficult to deal with because spying, by definition, is a covert activity. The victim doesn’t know it’s happening, and it’s not witnessed by others.

  During the 1970s, the ACLU and other public interest organizations brought lawsuits against unconstitutional police surveillance in several cities around the country, including New York City, Chicago, Memphis and Los Angeles. These suits resulted in the imposition of stricter limits on intelligence gathering by the police.

 In Seattle in 1976, it came to light that local police were spying on organizations of black construction workers, Native Americans, advocates for low-income housing and other community activists whose conduct was perfectly lawful. In response to the revelations, the ACLU, along with the American Friends Service Committee and the National Lawyers Guild, formed the Coalition on Government Spying. After several years of hard work and lobbying, the coalition succeeded in bringing about passage of a comprehensive municipal law — the first of its kind in the country — that governs all police investigations and restricts the collection of political, religious and sexual information.

 This law, called the Seattle Police Intelligence Ordinance, is an important breakthrough and a model for other efforts. It contains three elements that represent basic changes in police intelligence operations:

(1) “Restricted” information (that is, religious, political or sexual information) can be collected only if a person is reasonably suspected of having committed a crime, and the information must be relevant to that crime; (2) An independent civilian “auditor”, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council, must review all police authorizations to collect restricted information and have access to all other police files. If the auditor finds that the police have violated the law, he or she must so notify the individuals who are the subjects of the unlawful investigations;

(3) Any individual subjected to unlawful surveillance can bring a civil action in court to stop the surveillance, and to collect damages from the city.


 Police policies should be subject to public review and debate instead of being viewed as the sole province of police insiders. Open policy-making not only allows police officials to benefit from community input, but it also provides an opportunity for police officials to explain to the public why certain tactics or procedures may be necessary. This kind of communication between the police and the community can help anticipate problems and avert crises before they occur.

 The Police Review Commission (a civilian review body) of Berkeley, California holds regular, bi-monthly meetings that are open to the public. At these meetings, representatives of community organizations can voice criticisms, make proposals and introduce resolutions to review or reform specific police policies.

 The Police Practices Project of the ACLU of Northern California successfully pressured the San Francisco Police Department to adopt enlightened policies in regard to the treatment of homeless people; the use of pain holds and batons; the deployment of plainclothes officers at protests and demonstrations; intelligence gathering; the selection of field training officers, and AIDS/HIV education for police officers. The Project has also prevented the adoption of bad policies, including an anti-loitering rule and a policy that would have made demonstrators financially liable for police costs.

 In Tucson, Arizona, a Citizens’ Police Advisory Committee was made part of the city’s municipal code in July 1990. The Committee, which is composed of both civilian and police representatives, has the authority to initiate investigations of controversial incidents or questionable policies, along with other oversight functions.



(a) Consult with the governing body from time to time as may be required by the mayor and [City] Council.

(b) Assist the police in achieving a greater understanding of the nature and causes of complex community problems in the area of human relations, with special emphasis on the advancement and improvement of relations between police and community minority groups.

(c) Study, examine and recommend methods, approaches and techniques to encourage and develop an active citizen-police partnership in the prevention of crime.

(d) Promote cooperative citizen-police programs and approaches to the solutions of community crime problems, emphasizing the principal that the administration of justice is a responsibility which requires total community involvement.

(e) Recommend procedures, programs and/or legislation to enhance cooperation among citizens of the community and police.

(f) Strive to strengthen and ensure throughout the community the application of the principle of equal protection under the law for all persons.

(g) Consult and cooperate with federal, state, city and other public agencies, commissions and committees on matters within the committee’s charge.

(h) The committee may ask for and shall receive from the Police Department, a review of action taken by the Department in incidents which create community concern or controversy.

(i) The committee shall have the authority, should it so desire, to use a specific incident as a vehicle for the examination of police policies, procedures and priorities.

(j) At the discretion and express direction of the Mayor and Council, assume and undertake such other tasks or duties as will facilitate the accomplishment of these goals and objectives……… 


 Over the years, citizens’ groups in some communities demanded more education and training for police officers as part of their efforts to solve the problem of police abuse. But at this juncture, the education issue is somewhat moot because the educational levels of American police officers have risen dramatically in recent years. By 1986, 22.6 percent of all officers had four or more years of college. About 65 percent had at least some college experience. The levels of education are highest among new recruits, who, in many departments have about two years of college. Moreover, no evidence exists to show that college educated police officers perform better, or are more respectful of citizen’s rights, than less educated officers. In an abuse-prone department, all officers are likely to engage in misconduct, regardless of education levels.

 The training of police personnel has also improved significantly in recent years. The average length of police academy programs has more than doubled, from about 300 to over 600 hours; in some cities, 900 or even 1200 hours are the rule. As the time devoted to training has increased, the academies have added a number of important subjects to their curricula: race relations, domestic violence, handling the mentally ill, and so on.

 Unquestionably, a rigorously trained, professional police force is a desirable goal that should be pursued depending on local conditions. If citizens in your community feel that this is an important issue, here’s what you should aim for:

  A first rate police academy curriculum. The curriculum should be near the high end of the current scale — 800 hours or more. It should include a mix of classroom and supervised field training.

 It should include training in the techniques of de-escalating violence. In addition to being given weapons and taught how to use them, police recruits should also learn special skills — especially communications skills — to help them defuse and avert situations that might lead to the necessary use of force.

 It should include community sensitivity training. Training recruits to handle issues of special significance in particular communities can lead to a reduction in community-police tensions.

 The ACLU of Georgia, after a series of incidents occurred in Atlanta involving police harassment of gays, helped provide regular training at the local police academy to sensitize new recruits on gay and lesbian concerns.

 The Police Practices Project of the ACLU of Northern California organized a group of homeless people to create a video for use in sensitivity training at the San Francisco police academy.

 The ACLU of New Jersey, in response to complaints that state police were harassing minority motorists and entrapping gay men during an undercover operation in the men’s room of a highway service area, joined the NAACP and the Lesbian and Gay Coalition in initiating a series of meetings with the new superintendent of the Division of State Police. The meetings resulted in the introduction a two-week seminar on “Cultural Diversity and Professionalism” that all 1,700 employees of the Division were required to take within a year’s time. Although it’s too soon to evaluate the seminar’s impact on police conduct, the participating organizations believe that at the very least it opened up lines of communication between the community and the police.

  Unfortunately, even the most enlightened training programs can be undermined by veteran officers, who traditionally tell recruits out in the field to “forget all that crap they taught you in the academy.”

 In San Francisco some years ago, men selected as field training officers (FTOs) were found to have some of the worst complaint and litigation records in the department. The evaluation scores they gave recruits revealed their systematic attempts to weed out minority and women officers. They labeled women recruits “bad drivers,” gave Asians low scores in radio communication and unfairly criticized African Americans for their report-writing. The Northern California ACLU’s Police Practices Project joined other community groups in successfully pressuring the police department to adopt stricter selection criteria for FTOs to ensure greater racial and gender integration, fairer evaluations of recruits and higher quality training.


 Historically, police departments, like other government agencies, have engaged in employment discrimination. People of color have been grossly under represented, and women were not even accepted as full-fledged officers until the 1970s.

 Some progress has been made in the last 15 to 20 years. Police departments in several cities now have significant numbers of officers who are people of color.

  A few departments even approach the theoretically ideal level of maintaining forces that reflect the racial composition of the communities they serve. Most departments now recruit and assign women on an equal basis with men.

 Nonetheless, the overall employment levels of women and minorities still lag far behind the ideal. In 1986, only 8.8 percent of all sworn officers were women.

 The San Francisco police force, even though it has been operating under a court-approved consent decree for 12 years, is still only 12 percent female and about 25 percent minority — just a little more than half the integration level the court required. These disparities are most blatant at the highest ranks of virtually all police departments in the country. Although a number of cities now have African American police chiefs, only two big city departments have ever had female chiefs.

 Improvements in police employment practices have come about largely as the result of litigation under existing civil rights laws. However, the courts may not be hospitable to employment discrimination claims in the future. Therefore, community groups and civil rights organizations should prepare to fight in the political arena for the integration of police departments.

 In the short term, the recruitment of more women and minority officers may not result in less police abuse. Several social science studies suggest that minority and white officers do not differ greatly in their use of physical or deadly force, or in their arrest practices. (Women officers, on the other hand, are involved in citizen complaints at about half the rate of male officers, according to the New York City CCRB.) Still, in the long term, an integrated police force is a very important goal for these reasons:

(1) Integration will break down the isolation of police departments, as they reflect more and more the composition of the communities they serve. A representative police force will probably be less likely to behave like an alien, occupying army. The visible presence of officers of color in high-ranking command positions engenders public confidence in the ability of police department personnel to identify, on human terms, with community residents.

(2) Integration sends the important message that the primary enforcement arm of “the law” is, itself, committed to the principles of equal opportunity and equal protection of the law.

(3) Integration might, over time, reduce overtly racist/sexist enforcement tactics and actions, including brutality.


 Every state now has procedures for certifying or licensing police officers that require all sworn officers to have some minimum level of training. This was one of the advances of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

  An important new development is the advent of procedures for decertifying officers. Traditionally, a police officer could be fired from one department but then hired by another. As a result, persons guilty of gross misconduct could continue to work as police officers. Decertification bars a dismissed officer from further police employment in that state (though not necessarily in some other state). Between 1976 and 1983, the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission decertified 132 police officers.


 One result of the increasing number of lawsuits brought against police departments by victims of abuse over the past 20 years was a movement, within the police profession, for an accreditation process similar to that in education and other fields whereby the police would establish and enforce their own professional standards.

 In 1979, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (COALEA) was established as a joint undertaking of several major professional associations. COALEA published its first set of Standards for Law Enforcement Agencies in 1985 and issues new standards periodically.

 In deciding whether your community should press for accreditation of its local police department, keep in mind these basic points.

(1) Accreditation is a voluntary process. A police department suffers no penalty for not being accredited. (In contrast, lack of accreditation in higher education carries penalties that include an institution’s ineligibility for student financial aid programs and non-recognition of its awarded credits or degrees.)

(2) Current accreditation standards are minimum, rather than optimum. They are very good in some respects but do not go far enough in covering the critical uses of law enforcement powers.

(3) Accreditation might make a difference in the case of a truly backward, unprofessional and poorly managed police department in that it could help stimulate much needed and long overdue changes. On the other hand, a police department can easily comply with all of the current standards and still tolerate rampant brutality, spying and other abuses.

(4) Citizens in your particular community must decide whether, taking all of the above into account, accreditation would serve as an effective mobilization tool.


 Once your community has identified its police problems and decided what solutions to pursue, an organizing strategy for securing the desired reform must be developed.

 In the 1960s and ’70s, the most successful method of attacking police abuse was the lawsuit. During the tenure of Chief Justice Earl Warren, landmark Supreme

 Court decisions that imposed nationally uniform limits on police behavior were handed down in the cases of Mapp v. Ohio, Escobedo v. Illinois and Miranda v. Arizona. Respectively, those decisions extended Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures to the states, established the Sixth

 Amendment right to a lawyer during police interrogations and required the police to inform persons taken into custody of their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

 Today, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is repeatedly demonstrating its hostility to individual rights, as are many lower federal courts, the majority of whose presiding judges were appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. More and more, therefore, the task of opposing police abuse falls not to lawyers, but to the citizens in your community.


 PROFILE: The Indianapolis Law Enforcement and Community Relations Coalition.

 The year is 1984. Galvanized by a series of brutal and unjustified police killings that have sparked tensions between the police department and the African American community, 19 civil rights, religious, professional and civic organizations form the Indianapolis Law Enforcement/Community Relations Coalition. Coalition members include the Urban League, Baptist Ministerial Alliance, Community Centers of Indianapolis, Hispano-American Center, Indiana Council of Churches, Jewish Community Relations Council, Mental Health Association, NAACP and the United Methodist Church.

 The coalition, co-chaired by the directors of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and the Urban League of Greater Indianapolis, sets the establishment of a civilian review board as its first priority. A board is established in 1989.

 Currently, the coalition is seeking to strengthen the board’s authority and functions. Coalition members are calling for removal of three police representatives so that the board will be completely civilian and, thus, truly independent. Coalition members collaborate with police academy instructors on sensitivity training, meeting with every class of recruits before the recruit’s graduate and take on their first field assignments. The recruits receive orientation around various policies and procedures that impact on the community, such as the use of deadly force.

 In Indianapolis today, the Law Enforcement/Community Relations Coalition is regarded by the police, the public and the media as the city’s principal civilian watchdog organization. Key to the coalition’s success has been its broad based character and commitment to participatory decision-making.


 PROFILE: COPWATCH, Berkeley, California COPWATCH is a community organization whose stated purpose is “to reduce police harassment and brutality,” and “to uphold Berkeley’s tradition of tolerance and diversity.” Its main activities are monitoring police conduct through personal observation, recording and publicizing incidents of abuse and harassment, and working with Berkeley’s civilian review board — the Police Review Commission.

 COPWATCH sends teams of volunteers into the community on three-hour shifts. Each team is equipped with a flashlight, tape recorder, camera, “incident” forms (see sidebar) and COPWATCH Handbooks that describe the organization’s non-violent tactics, relevant laws, court decisions, police policies and what citizens should do in an emergency. At the end of a shift, the volunteers return their completed forms to the COPWATCH office. If they have witnessed a harassment incident, they call one of the organization’s cooperating lawyers, who follows up on the incident.  


PROFILE: The Seattle Coalition on Government Spying

 The year is 1976. During confirmation hearings for a new Seattle police chief, it comes to light that the city’s police department maintains political intelligence files on citizens who are not suspected of any criminal activity.

 Sometime later, a local newspaper prints the names of 150 individuals that were found in police files.

  A group of citizens, concerned about this clear violation of First Amendment and privacy rights, form the Coalition on Government Spying.

  One of the coalition’s first acts is to file suit under the Washington public disclosure law, seeking access to the police department’s intelligence files (see sample Open Records statute in sidebar). Under the law, the police can refuse to disclose the files only if “non disclosure is essential to effective law enforcement.” Since the files are purely political, the court orders full disclosure.

 The coalition’s charges of abuse turn out to be well-founded. Not only do the files show that the police have engaged in unconstitutional surveillance of political activists, but they are full of inaccurate, misleading and damaging information.

 The lawsuit and its revelations receive a lot of media attention, which helps build strong public support for reform. The result: Seattle enacts the first and only municipal ordinance in the country that restricts police surveillance.


 Each of the 50 states has a freedom of information act or an open records law. Virtually all such laws were enacted post-Watergate, in the mid-1970’s. Under these laws, community groups can request and obtain access to police reports, investigations, policies and tape recordings regarding a controversial incident, such as a beating, shooting, or false arrest. If the police refuse to disclose information to representatives of your community, that refusal in itself should become the focus of organizing and public attention. Ultimately, your community can sue to compel disclosure, unless the records you seek are specifically exempted.


 PROFILE: Police Practices Project, ACLU of Northern California the Police Practices Project conducts education programs to teach citizens about their constitutional rights. One aspect of the police abuse problem, the project believes, is that the police tend to abuse certain people partly because they think these individuals don’t know their rights, or don’t know how to assert their rights. The project also believes that its programs have the added advantage of recruiting groups and individuals to work in police reform campaigns.

  The project also publishes wallet-size cards in English, Spanish and Chinese that inform citizens about what to do or say in encounters with the police. These cards have been widely distributed in the community. (One card-holder reported that he pulled out his card when confronted by a police officer, only to have the officer reach into his wallet and pull out his own copy of the same card!)

 The project believes that individual citizens and community groups become informed about police policies just by participating in the preparation of educational materials and training sessions. That participation also fosters awareness about particular areas of police practice that need reform. Most important, education empowers even the most disenfranchised people and helps deter the police from treating them abusively.

If You Are Stopped in Your Car

 Show your driver’s license and registration upon request. You can in certain cases be searched without a warrant so long as the police have probable cause.

 To protect yourself later, you should make it clear that you do not consent to a search.

  If you are given a ticket, you should sign it, otherwise you can be arrested. You can always fight the case in court later.

 If you are suspected of drunken driving and refuse a blood, urine or breath test, your driving license can be suspended.

 If You Are Arrested or Taken to a Police Station You have the right to remain silent and talk to a lawyer before you talk to the police. Tell the police nothing except your name and address. Do not give explanations, excuses or stories. You can make your defense in court based on what you and your lawyer decide is best.

 Ask to see a lawyer immediately. If you cannot pay for a lawyer, you have a right to a free one, and you should ask the police how the lawyer can be contacted. Do not talk without a lawyer.


 PROFILE: The New York Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for a “Real Civilian Review Board”

 The time is August 1988; the place, New York City. Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood is rocked by one of the most serious outbreaks of police violence in years. The violence occurs as the police, declaring a curfew, begin to eject homeless people and their supporters from Tompkins Square Park. Fifty-two people, most of them innocent bystanders, sustain serious injuries at the hands of the police. Much of the violence is recorded on video. Yet the officers who are guilty of misconduct go virtually unpunished; only one receives more than a 30-day suspension from the force.

 The city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) comes under heightened scrutiny. Although it has existed since 1966, the CCRB has long been criticized for its lack of independence and secretive proceedings. Half of its 12 members are appointed by the mayor, the other half by the police commissioner. Most of the CCRB’s investigators are police officers.

  During 1991, the campaign calls on the city’s community boards to pass resolutions in support of “a real CCRB.” (The community boards are elected bodies that have advisory jurisdiction over a variety of local matters, such as zoning and land use). Campaign spokespersons debate police department representatives before some 30 community boards throughout the city, and 19 boards pass resolutions calling for revisions of the present system (see sample resolution in sidebar). Each board that passes a resolution becomes a member of the campaign coalition. Coalition members set up tables at street fairs and other community events to collect signatures on petitions for “a real CCRB.”

 More than 1,000 signatures are collected. The NYCLU, after garnering this broad support develops legislation for submission to the City Council. The bill is endorsed by 14 Council members. At this writing, the bill has yet to be debated, but the cause of true civilian review in New York City has already been advanced.