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Why the police are hard to police

From New York to L.A., the latest charges of abuse show how tough it is

As the FBI investigates what some are calling the largest corruption scandal to rock the Los Angeles Police Department in 60 years, the story is following a script familiar to many American cities.

First come the headlines: "Police abuse alleged." "Corruption probe widens." Then come shock and public protests, followed by calls for more citizen oversight, new leadership, better police training, or another in a long litany of reform.

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The allegations this time in Los Angeles are that at least a dozen officers abused their authority - from opening fire on unarmed suspects to planting evidence, dealing illegal drugs, or covering up their crimes by imprisoning at least one innocent man.

Recent history offers some stark lessons on the difficulties of rebuilding public trust in the wake of police abuse.

Key among them is that citizen oversight of police - the solution often touted as the most-needed remedy - runs into so many obstacles that it can easily fail to accomplish its purpose.

"Society lacks in general, and political figures and police administrators in particular, the political will to take the steps necessary to institute real [police] oversight, real accountability, real scrutiny," says John Crew, head of the Police Practices Project for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "It is a pattern," he adds, "that stretches from the president to the Department of Justice, to statehouses, down to the local city council and police chief."

Behind the limited progress is a host of considerations. Politicians who built their careers on crime-fighting seldom become champions of police-reform legislation. Police unions or top brass often resist the "meddling" of citizen-oversight boards. And citizen boards, once in place, have been known to render themselves ineffective by becoming mired in politics and personality conflicts.

Sustained public will

But just as important, say some criminologists and police-watchdog groups, is that the public at large seems unable to muster the sustained will to follow through on police reform. Such grass-roots activism, say Mr. Crew and others, is what brings truly independent police commissions or a change of police leadership at the top.

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That's not to say progress is nonexistent. The recent emphasis on community policing has required a new spirit of police-community relations, in which neighborhood residents need to be as willing to aid police as they hope police are to help them.

In some communities the public has opted to pay for new technology, such as video recorders for police cruisers. In a few, citizens have lobbied long and hard for new laws that require videotaping of criminal interrogations and confessions.

"Normal citizens have to keep up their energy and focus, instead of letting it dissipate when the initial crisis passes," says Ilene Luna, an authority on police reform at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The citizen activism has reaped some rewards, experts say.

In most cities, police departments are more diverse than they've ever been, having a larger share of women and minorities. Significant increases in funding for training, including the education of beat cops in interpersonal and communication skills, have also improved police conduct in dealing with the public. And citizen concern has, on occasion, prompted mayors or city councils to replace the man at the top, the police chief, upon whom rests the responsibility for a police culture of abuse or corruption.

But what has not been followed through on as successfully, say watchdog groups, is police accountability.

Many observers say police departments resist the kinds of mechanisms that seek to scrutinize, investigate, control, and discipline trained professionals. This is especially true when such boards are run by civilians who, in the eyes of police, don't know about the pressures and skills needed for police work.

"Police unions and associations from the national to the local level fight such boards tooth and nail," says Mary Powers of the National Coalition on Police Accountability. "Without a watchdog organization that has teeth, police know they can hide behind civil-service protections until the latest scandal passes by. Then they come out again when the coast is clear."

Others say the civilian boards themselves must accept some of the responsibility for limited progress.

"Too many civilian police boards and police commissions have developed a structure that won't upset the police," says Ms. Luna. "Too many operate out of the public view; too many set up models where everything is confidential."

The result, say critics, is a pattern of police abuse that seems to repeat itself in major American cities.

*In New York, the police killing of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, in a hail of 41 bullets brought a new spotlight on possible abusive tactics by elite police units nationwide.

*In Riverside County outside Los Angeles, the December 1998 shooting of Tyisha Miller, a black woman sitting alone in a car, raised questions of racial bias in the police department.

*In Illinois, a recent finding that 12 of 25 death-row criminals were wrongly convicted has opened a new dialogue on the tactics police use to elicit confessions.

In the past week, at least a dozen LAPD officers in gang-fighting squads have been implicated in a new scandal here. One of their own has charged that police shot an unarmed gang member, planted a gun on him to make the shooting look like self-defense, framed him, and lied under oath to send him to prison for 23 years. Since the charges surfaced last week, the man, now in a wheelchair, was released after serving three years.

The case is leading federal investigators to revisit old cases to determine the extent of the corruption, which allegedly centers on one precinct in a mostly Latino part of the city.

This latest episode is seen partly as a failure by the LAPD to sufficiently police its own ranks - and of citizen oversight to bring real change to the department. It follows on the heels of the Rodney King beating in 1991, which touched off a national furor after it was captured on videotape.

In December, the city's first inspector general, Katharine Mader, resigned, saying the Police Commission had undermined her position and misled the public into thinking her job was truly independent.

An issue of confidence

While some claim such incidents prove police departments are not improving, others argue they are the exceptions to a steady progress since the Rodney King episode.

"The overwhelming preponderance of studies ... show that the American public has confidence in police departments," says Hubert Williams of the Police Foundation. "The problem in policing ... continues to be that a small percentage of officers blemish the image of departments that otherwise are making progress."

San Francisco and Pittsburgh are two cities that are credited with operating effective review boards. Though varying in the amount of formal power they wield, each has established trust among citizens and police by avoiding partisanship.

"It's really about treating the police and civilians as equals," says Mary Dunlap, director of San Francisco's Office of Civilian Complaints. "You can't have the police be trusted simply because they have a badge, or civilians think they are always right because they are citizens."

"If you are going on a witch hunt or cop chase just for the chase, it won't work," agrees Elizabeth Pittinger of the Pittsburgh Citizen's Police Review Board, which has exonerated 70 percent of citizen complaints. "The key is being balanced and fair."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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