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.