Police Corruption and Misconduct
Despite legal safeguards and well-intentioned reforms, police problems have continued to produce headlines. The exact scope of misconduct is unknown. Misconduct complaints can be quantified on a city-by-city basis, but these data are often subjective, and far more complaints are filed than ever are evaluated at trial. Corruption is even harder to measure. As the National Institute of Justice acknowledged in its May 2000 report, The Measurement of Police Integrity, most corruption incidents go unreported, and data that do exist "are best regarded as measures of a police agency's anticorruption activity, not the actual level of corruption."
During the late 1990s, highly-publicized cases in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Detroit, and Cleveland exposed an apparently new trend: police drug corruption. In the Cleveland case alone, the FBI arrested 42 officers from five law enforcement agencies in 1998 on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. In a 1998 report to U.S. Congressman Charles B. Rangel, the federal GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE (GAO) found evidence of growing police involvement in drug sales, theft of drugs and money from drug dealers, and perjured testimony about illegal searches. The GAO survey of police commission reports and academic research suggested a troubling new dimension previously not seen in studies of police corruption. Traditionally, police corruption had been understood to involve individuals acting alone, but the new trend revealed officers working in small groups to protect and assist each other.
In 1999, this pattern emerged in one of the worst police corruption scandals in U.S. history. The scandal involved the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart precinct and particularly its elite anti-gang unit, CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). Following local and federal investigations, CRASH was dismantled, some 70 officers were investigated, and several either pleaded guilty to or were convicted of crimes ranging from drug theft and peddling to assault, fabricating arrests, and filing false reports.
The Rampart scandal bore heavy costs, financially as well as in human terms. Several dozen criminal convictions credited to the work of the corrupt officers were overturned. By 2003, the city had already paid $40 million to settle lawsuits. In a settlement with the federal government in 2000, the Los Angeles City Council accepted a CONSENT DECREE that placed the city's police department under the supervision of a federal judge for five years to implement and monitor reforms.
However, reform is no panacea. Even New York City's extensive reforms were called into doubt by two high-profile police cases in the 1990s. Both highlighted the difficulties inherent in prosecuting even apparently clear-cut misconduct. The first, in 1997, involved Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who was shockingly beaten in a police cruiser and sodomized in a bathroom with a broom handle by four NYPD officers. Louima ultimately settled a civil case against the department for $8.7 million in 2001, one of the highest police brutality settlements ever paid and the highest by New York City since paying a $3 million settlement in the choking death of Anthony Baez in 1994.
Yet, despite much public frustration, prosecution of the officers was less conclusive. Officer Justin Volpe pleaded guilty to leading the SODOMY assault and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. However, in 1999, his fellow three officers were acquitted on charges of assault in the police cruiser; one of them, officer Charles Schwarz, was convicted of violating Louima's civil rights for holding him down during the bathroom assault. In 2000, all three were convicted of obstructing justice for their actions in covering up evidence of the attack, but these convictions were later overturned in United States v. Schwarz, 283 F.3d 76 (2d Cir. 2002). Ordered a new trial on the civil rights charge, Schwarz reached a plea bargain in September 2002, agreeing to be sentenced to a 5-year prison term.
The second New York controversy involved the killing in 1999 of an unarmed man. Four undercover police officers shot Amadou Diallo 41 times after stopping the Guinean immigrant in the vestibule of his apartment building, where, they said, he reached into his back pocket. Large public protests attracted activists such as Susan Sarandon and former New York mayor David Dinkins, who argued that the department's so-called Aggressive Street Crimes Unit was in fact far too aggressive. In 2000, the four officers were acquitted in a trial that supporters said vindicated them but which critics blamed on lax prosecution.
Outside the courts, mounting resentment over discriminatory misconduct by police officers has occasionally led to rioting. In contemporary experience, the Los Angeles riots in 1992 followed the acquittal of white police officers charged with the videotaped beating of black motorist RODNEY KING. In April 2001, three days of rioting in Cincinnati followed the acquittal of a white police officer on charges of shooting Timothy Thomas, a 19-year old unarmed black man.
Cities, courts, police departments, and criminologists all continue to examine ways to bring meaningful reform to police departments. Some critics have argued that misconduct and corruption are age-old problems that resist all efforts at eradication; the best society can do, in this view, is monitor and correct. Others trace recent problems to public policy that emphasizes aggressive policing of drug, gang, and street crimes. Whatever the cause and the solution, until more efficacious remedies are found, some citizens will still require protection from the very people appointed to protect and serve them.
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