System `does not work’ to curb abusers
Police turn soft on crime when they investigate their own brutality.
Officers who beat and abuse citizens escape discipline all too often. And brutal cops are promoted more often than punished, according to a Gannett News Service study.
A year after a videotape captured Los Angeles police beating Rodney King, a lesson of the incident seems clear: While the majority of cops are humane and abhor brutality in their ranks, some think they can get away with violence. And taxpayers are as likely to be penalized as the officers responsible for beatings.
In the study – 100 lawsuits over the last five years in which victims won $100,000 or more – officers involved almost always kept their jobs. Only five of 185 officers involved were fired while at least 19 others either were promoted or left for higher-ranking law enforcement jobs. And cities and counties paid nearly $92 million in civil suits.
” ‘What does it mean when a jury says `Your cop lied and we’re sticking you for a million dollars?’ ” asks American University criminologist Jim Fyfe.
But police supervisors say losing a suit proves nothing.
“It’s not like math. It’s not an exact science,” says Deputy Chief Jeffrey Marek of Berkeley, Ill., who thinks jurors’ sympathy inspired a $366,000 verdict against his city in 1990.
Very few cops are accused of being abusive. Just 5% of officers – “thumpers” or “repeater beaters” – generate as many as half of all complaints, studies show.
Most departments don’t consider jury verdicts when evaluating officers, relying on internal investigations that almost always exonerate officers.
Very few cops are sued. But the juries can’t all be wrong, lawyers argue.
“This is our system of right and wrong, how we all live,” says Matthew Piers, who once defended Chicago police and now represents brutality victims. “The results are more likely true than not true.”
Deputies Bob Bishop and Bolitha Laws could cost San Diego County $1.1 million. A jury awarded that amount to a former priest who says the deputies pushed him to the ground, kneed him in the back, broke his nose and dislocated his shoulder – because he tried to help accident victims.
Bishop and Laws remain on the job while the verdict, the county’s largest, is appealed.
Cpl. James Green Jr. and Sgt. Glenn Barnes cost Goldsboro, N.C., $220,000 – paid to a 7-year-old boy whose father, James Swann Jr., died after police stopped him while he took a walk. Barnes struck him with a baton and Green squeezed his neck “until he relaxed.” Barnes was later promoted to captain. Green is Rolesville, N.C., chief of police.
“These officers should have at least lost their jobs,” says James Swann Sr., the father.
The nature of police work can foster brutality. Cops aren’t anxious to inform. They’re under increasing pressure to win the war on crime. And when they are caught crossing the line between necessary and excessive force, powerful unions defend them.
As a result, officers who cross the line don’t have much fear of being fired.
In Los Angeles, the Christopher Commission that investigated brutality charges in the Rodney King incident concluded the police internal disciplinary system “does not work.”
The commission found that of 2,152 abuse complaints in 1986-90, the police department judged 42 valid.
When departments find officers guilty, punishment is often light. Cops caught beating handcuffed suspects in Los Angeles typically were suspended for less than 10 days, the Christopher Commission found.
Critics charge that for cops to be fired requires behavior excessive enough jail them. Two Honolulu officers were fired and imprisoned after they urinated on a man and made him bob for toads in a drainage ditch at gunpoint.
Sometimes a firing can backfire. Albuquerque’s police chief fired Matthew Griffin after he heard accusations that he beat a citizen who’d asked to see his badge. But the city reversed the chief’s decision.
Within a year, Griffin was sued for killing a suspect and later convicted of murder and five bank robberies.
With so few offenders, experts say brutality could be reduced if chiefs got tougher.
“You’ve got to fire them,” says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation and ex-chief in Newark, N.J., where he turned the department into a model by sharpening discipline for brutality.
“They’ve got to look into the face of the monster and think you’ll kill them if they mess up,” Williams says. “It’s the only way to control them.”
But punishing cops can be very hard.
A code of silence persists in many departments. District attorneys are reluctant to indict officers, law enforcement experts say, because they depend on police to handle their criminal investigations.
Mayors sometimes fear antagonizing powerful police unions, which can harm political careers with three words: “soft on crime.”
Says Seattle lawyer Lembard Howell: “You’re fighting the whole system taking on the police department.”
When citizens get no satisfaction complaining to police, many sue. Jim Butler, the former priest, says all he wanted from the San Diego sheriff deputies was an apology. When he didn’t get it, he decided to sue.
“I felt betrayed.” Gone, he says, were “all the things I was taught as a child – to respect and obey the police.”
The county says the deputies are blameless. Butler was arrested for interfering with a deputy, says Nathan Northup, deputy county counsel.
Butler, like others, had hoped his verdict would send police departments a message. But instead of encouraging tougher punishments, such legal victories often have the opposite effect on chiefs.
“They may back the officer to protect the bank account,” says Andy Fallek, a New York City lawyer who often defends police. If a chief punishes an officer awaiting trial, the discipline will almost certainly be used as evidence of brutality.
Many chiefs tend to be skeptical of brutality complaints.
“It seems like everybody you meet wants to sue you,” says Sheriff Ralph Baker of Madison County, Ark., who lost a $100,000 brutality case.
He dismisses jury findings he beat a retarded boy for stealing baseball cards. “How do they know what excessive force is?”
Rolesville, N.C., Mayor Joe Winfree, knew about Green’s legal problems when he hired him as chief.
Carole Gailor, who represented Green and Barnes, said they had subdued Swann properly. Green acknowledged he had chased the unarmed Swann, grabbed his testicles and squeezed his neck. He thought Swann, a drug suspect, was armed, Gailor said.
But it turned out Swann had no drugs and no weapons. When rescue workers arrived, he was dead in the police car.
Winfree says the whole incident was “blown out of proportion. We were very fortunate to get an individual of his qualifications, his level of efficiency.” In a study of 100 brutality lawsuits, where victims won $100,000 or more: – 5 of 185 officers involved were fired – 19 officers got promoted or left for higher-ranking jobs in law enforcement – Municipalities paid almost $92 million in civil lawsuits