Confronting Police Misconduct

March Madness, Katrina and the culture of coverups.

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Police misconduct has been back in the news lately. Two incidents in particular may encourage the Obama administration's Justice Department to take a more aggressive and comprehensive stance against police brutality and systematic coverups of police misconduct.

Parents, college administrators and residents across the state of Maryland have been up in arms since videotape surfaced two weeks ago showing officers of the Prince George's County, Maryland police force brutally beating an unarmed college student during a celebration after a "March Madness" basketball game. Prince George's County is best known for being the wealthiest majority black county in the United States (a status threatened by the effects of the current financial crisis on residents there), and for being the home of the University of Maryland. Celebrations following victorious outings by the University of Maryland "Terps" basketball team are often rowdy and require police intervention. But to view this video is to understand how the police respond to "unrest" can be disproportionate and abusive.

Worse is what happened in the aftermath, when police attempted to cover up their conduct. The police arrested the student, John J. McKenna, and the charging documents suggested that the student had attacked police officers and charged a police horse. The video, of course, shows something quite different. The student is trying to get away from police who corner him. The mounted police officer appears to threaten the student, and while McKenna is on the ground covering his head, he is brutally beaten by several cops wielding clubs. Many other police officers stand around in plain sight of the incident. Just last week, campus police at University of Maryland "found" their own videotape of the incident, but key minutes are inexplicably missing from the tape.

Just a week before the tape of the beating in Maryland surfaced, Michael Hunter, a former New Orleans police officer confirmed in sworn testimony that a team of officers shot and killed two and wounded four other unarmed black men on the Danziger Bridge during the days following Hurricane Katrina. One of the victims killed, Ronald Madison, was shot in the back as he fled from the gunfire. He was 40 years old and severely mentally retarded. His brother, Lance Madison, was also on the bridge and ran with his brother from the police gunfire. Susan Bartholemew had her arm shot off by a police officer's bullet as she attempted to cross the bridge to get supplies at a Winn Dixie. Teenager Jose Holmes was shot by police at point-blank range in the stomach. He now wears a colostomy bag. Evidence shows that the officers opened fire on two separate families on the bridge without first identifying themselves as police officers. The officers who were on the bridge and other colleagues on the force created a police report that attempted to frame Lance Madison, Ronald Madison's brother, for initiating the conflict.

Former officer Michael Hunter was charged by the U.S. attorney for Louisiana with conspiracy to obstruct justice. Hunter‘s testimony as he entered his guilty plea, riveted the courtroom filled with family members of the men who were killed and the four men and women who were wounded by the police. After hearing Hunter's factual statement, federal district court judge Sara Vance described the coverup by the officers as "craven lawlessness."

Although separated by hundreds of miles and years, these two cases both involve not only police brutality, but more importantly the deliberate and blatant coverup of police misconduct. It is this complicity with and promotion of misconduct within too many police departments that warrants the close attention of the Justice Department. Any police force can have a rogue officer or two. And any police officer can overreact. Police officers face enormous pressures each day as they do the tough work of crime-fighting. But what is deeply corrosive of public confidence in police are the actions of police officers and their superiors back at the station house, after heads have cooled, and the adrenaline-producing confrontation is over. It is then, when the brotherhood closes ranks and engages in the deliberate and careful construction of false stories, manufactured charges, and vehement denials of wrongdoing--that the integrity of our justice system is shattered.

That the victim in the case is white and a college student is important. (He's also the grandson of a retired state court judge.) His family had the means and the wherewithal to hire an investigator who found the video. This will not be the case for poor or uneducated, black victims of police abuse. But more importantly, the connection of police brutality with racism often seems to derail a fact-focused analysis and sends political leaders fleeing to a treasure trove of racial banalities that focuses more on racial solidarity than on clear-eyed investigation of police conduct. A "beer summit" takes the place of careful scrutiny of the police report and review of eye-witness testimony. Even Rodney King wondered couldn't we all "just get along."

The truth is that police misconduct too often has a lot to do with race. But coverups of police misconduct almost always have to do with a culture that emphasizes brotherly (and sisterly) solidarity in the police corps above all. Thus, falsified charges and reports are filed and then supported by police officers and their superiors throughout the department, regardless of the officers' race. Perhaps the prominent involvement of a white victim and a largely black police force will properly focus and sustain attention on the culture of the coverup in some police departments.

At the same time, one cannot avoid the racial dynamics at the core of the Danziger Bridge shootings. The criminalization of blacks, who struggled to survive in those terrible days after Hurricane Katrina, resulted in countless indignities and brutality against black New Orleans residents. The refusal by armed sheriffs' deputies to allow beleaguered blacks to leave New Orleans and enter the majority-white city of Gretna, the lurid and ultimately unfounded rumors of bestial acts of criminality at the SuperDome, the over-blown focus on looting--all contributed to the suffering, injury and death of blacks in New Orleans. That some police officers were involved in egregious acts of misconduct based on clearly racialized perceptions of threatening conduct demonstrates that police training in New Orleans failed to adequately break through entrenched racial stereotypes. Instead, what happened in New Orleans shows us that in times of crisis, black residents may be especially vulnerable not only to the external threat (in that case the flood waters), but also to a racially charged atmosphere among the very law enforcement corps assigned to protect the population from the effects of a catastrophe.

It is time for federal authorities to do more to address police brutality. It's worth remembering that these two cases feature key elements missing from most police brutality cases--a videotape in the Prince George's County case and a confession in the Danziger Bridge incident.  Countless other cases of police abuse will never see the light of day. The consequence will be the further eroding of confidence in the police in our cities.