Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Changing Snout of Excessive Force

pig brutalityOriginally posted by Nadir at www.lastchocolatecity.com

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in October 1966 - 40 years ago - largely in response to police brutality, oppression and poverty in urban communities.

The battle for civil rights and civil liberties was at a turning point. American soldiers were fighting an unpopular war of aggression against people of color in a far away land. The nation’s Texas-bred president was under great pressure from citizens to end the war and from business leaders to keep the war on track. Government agencies were cracking down on dissent by spying on anti-war protestors and other American citizens.

But Huey P. Newton isn’t around anymore, and any sense of deja vu that you have is misplaced. Comparing Iraq to Vietnam is like equating a quagmire in the middle of the desert to a swamp in the heart of the jungle.

This is the message of police advocates like Darrell Ross and David Klinger, who claim that despite the recent rash of violent police incidents that have been reported in the media (and showing up on YouTube), police brutality and the use of excessive force are much better than they used to be.

Ross cites statistics that show the annual average of lethal police shootings are down by 33% since 1968, and non-lethal shootings by 20-22%. “He credits a drop in violent crime, more restrictive court rulings, better training and decision-making by officers and the availability of more less-lethal force options, including OC [pepper spray], Taser and beanbag ammunition.”

So what that Ross dances around the fact that the use of force by the police has remained steady, at about 1% of the thousands of police/civilian encounters which have increased with population growth. The police are killing a smaller percentage of people.

I would NEVER compare Al Sharpton to the BPP or even to MLK, and it is certain that Oakland police and Bull Connor used much more colorful language in the late 60s than Klinger’s labelling of today’s civil rights leaders as “the racial grievance industry”. But Ross observes that race is becoming less of a factor in police use of deadly force. He admits,

Given their representation in the general population (about 15%), blacks are disproportionately shot by police. But that figure is changing. In 1978, 49% of suspects shot by officers were black. By 2003 that had fallen to 34%.

And check out this sign of progress and racial harmony:

The incidence of white officers killing black suspects has dropped since 1978, while the incidence of white officers killing white suspects is increasing. Most often black suspects are killed by black officers.

It should make us all happier that racism isn’t a problem with the police anymore. Today’s color-blind cops are killing their own kind more than they are killing other ethnic groups. Indeed the five undercover cops who shot up a bachelor party, killing bridegroom Sean Bell, were a virtual United Nations of brutality - two blacks, two whites and a latino.

And we can’t leave out Detroit’s Booty Boys. Nope. They aren’t a gangsta rap group. They’re a pair of cops who have been performing illegal cavity searches (essentially rape) on Black men in broad daylight in front of witnesses. Many of the victims didn’t report the incidents because it happened so often, they thought it must be legal. Perhaps this explains the reason non-lethal violent encounters with police are down. How many police brutality victims were “resisting arrest” while they were handcuffed? One also wonders how many police shootings are unreported or blamed on an “unknown assailant”.

Where both lethal force and nonlethal force are concerned, Ross’ research confirms that the measure of force officers decide to employ is “highly associated” with the degree of suspect resistance. In other words, force is not just arbitrarily and unjustly delivered. Indeed, he found that officers “routinely use lower forms of force than what could have been justified” (deploying OC, for example, when a baton or a neck restraint could have been employed). A significant indication of the move toward lower levels of force is a decline in the use of impact weapons and a corresponding rise in the use of pepper spray, Ross says.

So the police may actually be using lower levels of force more often since those options are now available. Former cop, now criminologist Klinger stated in an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation that force is not ruled excessive until after a “suspect” is subdued. Often the use of excessive force is deemed to be justified by prosecutors. If it takes 50 shots for the “suspect” to be “subdued” or to stop moving, then that may not be considered excessive after police departments finish their internal reviews.

Yes, gentlemen. It is a new day.


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