Q&A on Police Brutality, Part I

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Michael Brown was an 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. There are numerous facts that are still unknown about what happened that night between Brown and officer Darren Wilson, but many are seeking justice for Michael Brown. Eric Garner, 43, died on July 17 during an incident in which he was placed in a chokehold at the hands of an officer with the New York City Police Department (NYPD). Unlike the Brown case, though, the facts surrounding Garner’s death are pretty clear, largely because witnesses recorded the whole thing.  No matter how many differences there are in these two cases, they both highlight an issue that has long been of concern – and that is the issue of police brutality.

I’ve been looking for sources that can shed some light on the subject and was fortunate enough to speak with Michelle Gross, the president of Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB). According to CUAPB’s website, police brutality is defined as “excessive or unnecessary force by police officers with the purpose or expectation of causing death, bodily harm or mental harm to a human being.” The organization, which is based in St. Paul and Minneapolis Minnesota, does many things to help fight against police brutality, such as offering a 24-hour crisis line to report instances of abuse, increasing public awareness about police brutality, providing support to those who have suffered from police brutality and offering help with litigation.

Though CUAPB is a local organization, the issue of police brutality is one that is widespread and is not going away anytime in the near future. Here, I’ve asked Gross several questions about the organization, police brutality, and what we might be able to expect moving forward.

1. How did you become involved in the issue of police brutality, and why do you think it is an important issue? 

I have been involved in social justice issues since I was a teen.  I became involved specifically in this issue after I was brutalized by police in New Orleans 26 years ago while I was working to get a civil rights ordinance passed by the city council.

2. Please explain what Communities United Against Police Brutality aims to do.

Communities United Against Police Brutality was created in December 2000 to deal with police brutality on an ongoing basis.  We work on the day-to-day abuses as well as taking on the more extreme cases.  Our overriding goal is to empower local people with a structure that can take on police brutality and actually bring it to an end.

We provide advocacy for people dealing with the effects of police brutality so they can reclaim their dignity and join the struggle to end police brutality.  We engage in political actions and litigation to change the underlying conditions that lead to police brutality, misconduct and abuse of authority.  We educate the community on their rights and on policing issues.

3. On the Communities United Against Police Brutality website, it says, “Whenever a new case of police brutality comes to light, people in the community must respond politically to ensure justice for the victim.” What would you define as justice for a victim of police brutality?

Justice can mean a number of things, depending on the particular incident and individual.  In general the person needs to have their experience acknowledged, they need to have the harms they experienced addressed, they need to regain their dignity and sense of empowerment, and many hope that their actions will prevent others from being brutalized.

4. What do you think is the most misunderstood or overlooked aspect related to police brutality? 

The first misperception is that the problem is about “a few bad apples.”  In fact, the problem is about a bad system that validates and rewards bad conduct and makes it difficult for officers who do not want to be part of that conduct to come forward.

Much of the issue lies with the culture of policing.  Police officers are permitted to use force as part of their role, but have little supervision or accountability in the use of that force.  A pervasive myth of the danger of police work (which is actually far safer than many other professions) provides abusive cops with legal and political cover for their actions.

Yet another misperception is that political leaders actually want police brutality to end.  Public officials rely on endorsements from police unions for re-election.  Further, police are often used to “clean up” certain areas by targeting homeless people and others.  Thus, public officials at least tolerate a certain amount of brutality as long as it is directed toward particular populations.

5. There has been much discussion and controversy surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. So many different issues and factors come into play when forming an opinion or set of actions. How do you think officials and police officers in Ferguson should address the problem?

They should have addressed this incident the way they would have if Michael Brown’s killer was any other member of the community—they should have arrested Darren Wilson and immediately engaged in a legitimate investigation, leading potentially to a prosecution. Instead, they defended Wilson even before there was an investigation then have engaged in heavy-handed, militaristic policing that has inflamed the situation, leading to the longest running protest against police brutality in the US since the 1960s.

6. How have the policies impacting the way police officers address certain situations changed in recent years and do you think these changes have made police brutality more or less prevalent?

For the last 20 years, the federal government has provided many police departments–even those in tiny communities like Ferguson–military vehicles, weaponry, and other equipment that has turned police agencies into local armies and fed into a “them vs. us” culture that pits local police against members of their community.  This has been evident in the obscene levels of militarized force used against protesters in Ferguson, but also during protests of political conventions and police suppression of the Occupy movement.  This has also led to thousands of heavy-handed raids on homes, including wrong address raids, with disastrous results.

7. A police officer’s response to a given situation is highly dependent on the facts of each case. Is there a way for policymakers and police officers to move forward and address the issue of police brutality that does not involve handling each case separately?

While individual situations occur, it is possible—in fact, essential—that police departments craft policies and procedures that guide police conduct while upholding the Constitution and laws.  Brutality and civil rights violations occur when police departments fail to have these policies in place or fail to properly train and supervise their officers.

There is also a need for oversight and accountability mechanisms outside of the police force as police agencies have proven notoriously bad at investigating themselves.  Police officers must uphold the law and must be accountable to the community when they don’t.

3 thoughts on “Q&A on Police Brutality, Part I”

  1. Unfortunately, these articles make all police persons look bad, while most are good solid citizens who try there best to keep us safe. This is a dangerous world, with so many crimes. These people put there lives on the line every day. There are some instances of police brutality, but many many more of criminal brutality. A lot of police mistakes could have been prevented if the person just cooperated with the officer. We don’t know enough about Mike Brown to convict the policeman. We may never know the real facts, but if I was on a jury to convict him, I would need to know a lot more. Firing 6 shots from a gun can be done in 1.5 seconds. No one should resist arrest, even if innocent, your just asking for trouble. Too many policemen are killed just walking up to a car. Mike Brown is not just an innocent kid. He just robbed a store being a bully. No excuse for being killed, but what else went on. There was confrontation with the policeman. I can’t believe that a policeman with his record would just shoot a kid without cause. Don’t judge before all the facts are known. Yes, there are a few bad cops and they should pay the price. There is no excuse for the riots in Ferguson. The news cameras just fuel the fire. Too much attention on this issue. Look at whats going on elsewhere. Are we going to let ISIS run wild and eventually get into the country through our porous boarders? I feel sorry for Mike Brown and his parents. His parents should feel bad that he was even in the circumstances he was in.

  2. There will always be 2 sides to the story. Somewhere along the way, parents, teachers, community leaders, and law enforcement, lost sight of what a law enfocement officer does. There are a few bad apples, I agree, but most of the criminals have no respect for law enfocement officers in general or for the law. This is a 2 way street. How many law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty in the last 4 months, at the hands of a criminal, compared to how many citizens were killed by police officers. Look at the stats.

  3. Lis here are my comments from a different perspective

    In regard to the number of shots fired :

    The focus on the number of shots fired from the officer’s gun is totally misplaced. It is
    irrelevant if he fired once, twice or seventeen times. According to the Progression of Force continuum followed by every police department in the United States, if an
    officer determines that lethal force is required, he is trained to utilize as
    much lethal force necessary to counter the threat and to shoot to kill.

    This is not TV- like Barnaby Jones or some other show where the cop shoots the bad guy in the leg. The officer has to fire as many times as necessary to neutralize the threat. So really the only shot that is of any consequence is the first shot. The only exception would be if the threat was completely neutralized and then the police officer kept shooting. However, as long as the assailant is on his
    feet and poses a threat after the initial decision has been made to use lethal
    force, the police officer is not obligated to stop shooting.

    As for the possible threat posed by Mr. Brown:

    The popular notion that Mr. Brown’s previous crime, which
    has been admitted to by his cohort, has no relevance in connection with the
    shooting is false. Both the intent of the officer and the intent of the individual shot by the office are relevant to the determination as to whether lethal force was required. Mr. Brown had just committed an assault and battery, as well as a robbery. He had no
    idea what the officer knew or did not know when the officer initially
    approached him. From Mr. Brown’s standpoint he was facing possible prison time thus giving him a reason to resist any attempt by the officer to effectuate an arrest. How much force Mr. Brown used is in issue,but his motivation is clear. People who
    may be facing jail time tend to look at things differently and act differently
    than someone who has committed no crime whatsoever. It is more likely than not that Mr. Brown, facing arrest and jail time as a result of a felony offense, could have acted
    in a way consistent with the police officer’s version of events.
    In sum, there is no complaint with reviewing police actions for brutality but the facts of accepted police procedures should not be forgotten.

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