Confronting Police Misconduct

March Madness, Katrina and the culture of coverups.


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.

The Justice Department should undertake a comprehensive national review of police misconduct, confront police unions that regularly close ranks and pressure elected officials to refrain from calling out incidents of abuse and provide federal funds for better police training, and financial incentives for police departments who punish rather than close ranks around abusive officers. We need to instill a culture of transparency, of disclosure and of strong, public responses to police abuse. We need testimony like Michael Hunter’s when these events are first investigated, not five years after the shootings took place. And it should be remembered that Hunter only resigned from the New Orleans Police force late last month–the day after he was arrested by federal authorities.

The federal government has a part to play in promoting a new culture of transparency on state and local police forces. It is the power of the purse–perhaps even more than the power of Justice Department oversight–that is the federal government’s strongest tool in transforming the culture of coverup that pervades too many police forces, and that abuses not only individual victims, but our entire system of justice.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.

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