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What Is Police Abuse?
By police abuse, we mean the inappropriate and illegal use of police powers to coerce, harass,
intimidate, arrest, assault and kill members of our community. Police abuse also occurs in the
form of racial profiling, illegal roadblocks and illegal searches. The victims of police abuse
are often the usual targets of institutional discrimination: racial minorities, homeless people,
gays, youth and anyone who protests against the system. It can happen, however, to anybody.
In Louisville, the abuse occurs often enough that almost everyone knows someone who has been
harassed, jacked up, beaten or arrested. All of us have heard about the men who have been killed
by the police.
Because of this abuse and the lack of accountability to the community, many people don't see
the police as "public servants". Police are seen as part of the power structure in this community
that oppresses them. And the problem is worsened by the fact that our political leaders rarely
speak out against this violence and sometimes give a wink and a nod when it happens blaming the
victims. Police abuse and other forms of criminal injustice pose a threat to the foundations of
our democracy. It adds to the frustration and hopelessness of people who already feel abandoned
and serves to further undermine the trust that citizens have in their government.
Why Police Abuse Is Allowed To Continue and How It Relates to Other Problems
The police departments have bad policies and "internal cultures":
- Their hiring policies are flawed. They do not do enough checking of the backgrounds and
complete psychological tests on officer candidates. The departments have a habit of hiring
officers who have a "power-hungry and gung-ho mentality" and often hold racist, sexist or
homophobic views. We do not need anyone like that in a position of power carrying guns.
- Police officers are not trained properly. This has led to shooting suspects (most of whom
have been unarmed) and abusing people in the community regularly. They tend to "shoot first
and ask questions later". It appears that instead of being trained to deal with people in a
respectful manner they operate under the assumption that everybody is a potential criminal.
- Departments have vague "use of force" policies that allow officers to interpret them the way they want.
- There is no accountability when an officer violates the department's own policies. Officers
are rarely found guilty of wrongdoing by the police department's own internal investigations.
In fact, in many cities nationwide, officers who shoot people dead end up getting promoted.
This gives them the go-ahead to abuse more victims. Clearly, the police cannot police themselves.
90% of citizen complaints of excessive use of force end up in "no action".
- There is no "quality control". Bad officers with many complaints are not adequately tracked
and therefore never get fired.
- There is an unwritten "Blue Code" of silence which means that police officers cover up for each other.
The Louisville Police Department (LPD) tolerates this conduct.
- Most abused citizens are discouraged from filing complaints and are sometimes intimidated into
not doing so. This results in much abuse not ever being reported. When they do file, victim's
complaints are often distorted and sometimes falsified by internal affairs officers. Accused
officers lie to cover themselves. (See: OOPS?!: Process & suggestions for filing a complaint)
- Officers get a commission every time they arrest someone. They get about $40 every time they
show up in court in addition to their salaries. This system encourages them to arrest anybody and
slap them with a bogus charge, or pull people over for no reason, in hopes that they will be able
to find something to charge them with.
- Policing is a stressful job and the police department does not have an adequate social support system
within the department to help them deal with the stresses.
Bad laws govern the criminal justice system:
- When an officer is accused and goes to court for abusing citizens, in many states they have "special rights".
These include "qualified immunity" which gives them automatic appeals when they are found guilty. For the
average citizen this is not the case because a judge can deny an appeal.
- Mandatory minimum sentencing laws automatically send people to jail for certain crimes regardless of
individual circumstances. These laws mean that the judge can't take into consideration, for example,
the accused having a past clean record. These laws end up crowding our jails and prisons. Almost all
inmates in local, state and federal jails and prisons are there because of drug or economic crimes,
not violent crimes like rape, abuse or murder. (See: The War on Drugs)
- Jury pools are selected from a pool of registered voters, so if you are not registered to vote, you will
never sit on a jury. This has resulted in juries in this country being disproportionately white and older.
Consequently, most people, especially people of color, are not judged by a "jury of their peers".
- People who are poor can become victims of the system even if they are not guilty. Poor folks usually
don't have the money to fight a case to the bitter end or get a good attorney who has experience and
will fight it. This means they are often encouraged to "plea bargain" where they plead guilty to a
lesser charge even if they are not guilty. This railroading of people through the courts saves the
police departments, prosecutors, district attorneys, courts and cities time and a lot of money.
This is a system that doesn't care about justice, only money.
There is a misconception that the police can do no wrong:
- Across the country, less than 2% of abuse cases where officers violated the law end in indictments or convictions.
- Juries reflect the attitude in our society, from years of being conditioned, that all poor people are potential criminals,
especially people of color.
- Victims of abuse are treated as less important and seen as being deserving.
The "drug war" makes the police a military brigade against the people, mostly people of color:
- Both local and national politicians have given police departments the impossible task of fighting
a "war" against drugs. When the government uses words like "war" it means that there has to be an
army (the police) that fights an enemy (the people). This failed "war" puts both police officers
and citizens at risk.
- People sell drugs to make money and people often do drugs out of desperation and hopelessness.
Locking up petty street corner dealers and drug addicts doesn't get rid of drugs in the community;
it only puts people who are sick and poor in jail. The only way to eliminate drugs as a community
problem is through drug treatment programs and resident-driven economic development. Education,
training and jobs that pay a "living wage" are some real solutions.
- The drug war disproportionately affects people of color. In 2003 in the US- an estimated 12 % of
black males, 4 % of Hispanic males and 1.6 % of white males in their twenties and early thirties
were in prison or jail.
- The drug war provides the prisoners for the prison industry that has increasingly become privatized
and made into a moneymaking business. (See: The War on Drugs)
There is a lack of local leadership in government:
- The need for civilian review, or monitoring, of the police has been put before our elected officials,
"civic leaders" and the media for years without action. Even before CAPA, the Kentucky Alliance
Against Racist and Political Repression lobbied, protested and organized around this issue (and
continues to do so). Among the powerful "movers and shakers" in Louisville's corporate class, police
abuse is not even an issue. And there continues to be strong opposition to this idea among the police
themselves. A recently enacted civilian review ordinance passed by the Board of Aldermen in 2000 and
remains on the books, but the leadership has failed to implement it. At the same time, the Board of
Aldermen voted to give the Louisville police a raise without negotiating for the FOP's support of
civilian review. (See: A Civilian Review Board)
- It appears that both elected officials and the non-elected members of the city's white power structure
are not looking for real solutions to economic and drug "crimes". While locking people behind bars is
the easiest thing to do, it's not the most effective at best. In reality, it reinforces a class system
that is racist and is an attack on poor people of all colors. Apparently, tax money and bonds can be
found to expand the airport, build a new downtown arena, and promote Louisville as a "world class city"
in order to attract "young professionals" to the area. But money for programs to help young people who
already live here and are at risk for drug abuse and street crime is not a priority.
CAPA, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Justice Resource Center activists organized and
mobilized in the wake of the shooting of James Taylor, an African American shot 11 times
while handcuffed (Feb. 2003).
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