David Dinkins, Susan Sarandon and other celebrities got the headlines, submitting to arrest at New York’s One Police Plaza to protest the death of unarmed Amadou Diallo at the hands of the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit. But it is families of police victims, in New York and elsewhere, who have brought police brutality to national attention. At an April 3 march in Washington organized by the Center for Constitutional Rights–one of a handful of organizations carving out new case law on police misconduct–those families were not just present on the podium but as the bearers of homemade, iconlike signs on which were written in Magic Marker detailed stories of murdered sons and husbands.
In New York, the police brutality protests–coming between the Diallo shooting and the opening of the trial of officers accused of brutalizing another immigrant, Abner Louima–are widely perceived as barometers of dissatisfaction with Mayor (and Senate hopeful) Rudolph Giuliani. But they are not just a New York phenomenon. Opposition to abusive policing has now become the key civil rights wedge issue from California, where the Bay Area Police Watch has established itself as an influential human rights monitor, to New Jersey, where Governor Christine Todd Whitman recently fired the chief of her state troopers after his remarks endorsing racial profiling of suspects.
While abusive cops have been an issue ever since Sir Robert Peel’s nineteenth-century invention of a professional police force, the past fifteen years have brought unprecedented levels of brutality complaints. Beginning in the mid-eighties, Congress and state legislatures have introduced incentives that reward departments that elevate their arrest levels, encourage neighborhood sweeps and fund trigger-happy SWAT teams. And courts in the same period have granted police ever-wider authority to conduct searches, sweeps and racial profiles–the very circumstances most likely to precipitate violent encounters. (The Supreme Court took yet another set of gloves off in an April 5 decision expanding police power to search the belongings of all passengers in a car while seeking evidence against the driver.)
Local anti-police brutality campaigns have already achieved successes. Bay Area Police Watch established a hotline, a database and a legal advocacy center for misconduct complaints, moves that have led to the dismissal of officers and effective reform. In Pittsburgh, the case of Jonny Gammage, asphyxiated after a traffic stop, convinced the Justice Department’s civil rights division to file an unprecedented lawsuit charging systematic misconduct, which eventually led Pittsburgh police to sign a consent decree establishing new standards for the supervision of officers and establishing a computer system to flag officers with a pattern of complaints against them. Now many local advocates, working under the umbrella of CCR, have launched a campaign calling for a “Jonny Gammage Law,” which would trigger a federal investigation whenever a suspect dies at the hands of a police officer, and for a Justice Department pledge to cut off funding for departments with a pattern of abuse.
In New York, Giuliani has prospered politically by making himself the most visible apostle of the law-enforcement creed variously known as “zero tolerance,” “quality-of-life policing” or “public-order policing.” But there is no shortage of alternatives that promise a more accountable and less violent form of securing community safety. From Oakland to New Haven, cities are cutting crime with community policing that, as reform pioneers Robert Trojanowicz and Bonnie Bucqueroux put it, allows “average citizens the opportunity to have input into the police process in return for their support and participation.” San Juan, Puerto Rico, has adapted Japan’s system of neighborhood police substations that serve as community centers and entry points to the social service system. Boston, after several high-profile brutality cases and sweeps, established a police partnership with churches and neighborhood organizations.
Anger at police brutality routinely inspires media predictions of violent community reaction. But what is remarkable about the current wave of revulsion against police violence and racism around the country is how bereaved and angry families–like Amadou Diallo’s parents, Kadiadou and Saikou, now planning to tour several US cities, or the family of Pittsburgh police victim Gammage–have emerged as disciplined and effective campaigners for reform. They are the American versions of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina: Their losses are a road to political engagement and their witness is the harbinger of a fight to end fifteen years of the violent, zero-tolerance gospel.