Citizens put searchlight on police misconduct
Steve Schell
October 1999

The meetings of the recently established Police/Community Committee in Gainesville have brought to light some problems that have been simmering for quite a while. Residents of minority neighborhoods complain that they are being singled out and harassed simply because of their race. Many claim that even though police have no reason to suspect them of any crime, they are nevertheless stopped, questioned, and sometimes detained or even arrested on some bogus charge. At a committee meeting last month, residents identified two officers by name that they wanted removed from their neighborhood patrol because of recurring harassment, and several citizens spoke at recent city meetings dealing with closing hours for bars and clubs, wondering why their neighborhoods were seemingly singled out, when there were supposedly so many problems downtown.

These charges come at a time when law enforcement agencies nationwide are scrambling to defend themselves against charges of racial profiling, harassment, and police brutality. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, speaking to the National Press Club in April, said that for many people in the minority community "the trust that is so essential to effective policing does not exist because residents believe that police have used excessive force, that law enforcement is too aggressive, that law enforcement is biased, disrespectful, and unfair."

In April, Reno also met with police chiefs and community leaders from various cities, and with inner-city youths, to discuss ways of improving public confidence in the police. Reno said that every law enforcement agency should have "a vigorous system for investigating allegations of misconduct thoroughly and fairly"; to monitor their use of force and to establish "early warning systems" to identify officers who engaged in misconduct. She stressed the need for an "independent review" of each department's performance, something that has been called for repeatedly locally, but to no avail.

On June 9th, the Justice Department held a national summit on police brutality-the "Police Integrity Conference"-attended by community and civil rights leaders and police representatives as well as President Clinton. At the meeting Janet Reno announced that the Justice Department would begin compiling policy and practice recommendations and distribute them to agencies around the country.

In a report entitled, "United States of America: Race, Rights and Police Brutality," released in late September, Amnesty International reports that the situation is national in scope. The Amnesty report's recommendations included:

1. "Police departments should be required to keep detailed records on the use of force and to report publicly at regular intervals, providing statistical data on shootings and other use of force, in-custody deaths and injuries. They should also provide data on the number and type of complaints filed, and on their disposition and outcome.

2. "The Administration should actively support passage of the Traffic Stops Statistics Act of 1999, in order that the extent of racial and ethnic profiling in police traffic stops can be comprehensively and systematically evaluated. Meanwhile, all states and local agencies should follow the lead taken by some US police departments by voluntarily setting up their own monitoring systems.

3. "State, local and federal authorities should establish effective, independent oversight bodies for their respective police agencies, with powers to investigate and review complaints against the police as well as broader policy issues and patterns of concern, and to issue detailed public reports."

The accompanying story of Max Antoine's near-fatal beating at the hands of several police officers is but another example of the police brutality that seems to be at the forefront of the long list of concerns raised about law enforcement in this country. In many instances, these incidents appear to be race-based but more and more, the actions of law enforcement personnel nationwide reflect a "police mentality" that considers every citizen a suspect. This mentality is largely an outgrowth of the government's "War on Drugs," over a quarter century old and a miserable failure. Almost daily, there are reports of some overzealous behavior by some police officer somewhere-suspects being shot 20 or more times, scores of riot-gear-clad cops raiding clubs or parties or mere gatherings of friends, suspects being beaten severely or even to death, citizens' money and possessions being seized even when there are no charges filed against them. Increasingly, law enforcement agencies right down to the local level are being trained by the military, purchasing or being granted the use of military equipment, and using tactics against citizens that were formerly reserved for use against an enemy in war, all in the name of protecting society from criminals. Who, now, will protect us from the police?

To learn more about Amnesty International's work, visit their website:

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