Human Rights Group
Says Police Brutality
Rampant In US
By Jonathan Wright
WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - The largest U.S. human rights group accused the U.S. federal and local governments on Tuesday of turning a blind eye to chronic and widespread brutality by police officers. Human Rights Watch, releasing a detailed report on police behavior in 14 cities, said the brutality was one of the most serious, enduring and divisive human rights violations in the United States. It said members of the black and Hispanic minorities were the victims in disproportionate numbers. ``Police officers engage in unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings and unnecessarily rough physical treatment in cities throughout the United States,'' it said. ``Their police superiors, city officials and the Justice Department fail to act decisively to restrain or penalize such acts or even record the magnitude of the problem,'' it added. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that in this respect the United States resembled authoritarian states, and its record at home could damage the government's efforts to push for improved human rights abroad. ``The key officials are so clearly failing in their duty to combat police brutality. As in many repressive countries, police officers in the United States commit brutality because they are permitted to remain above the law,'' Roth told a news conference to launch the 440-page report. ``We fear that the U.S. government's failure to address this serious human rights problem risks undermining U.S. credibility in addressing human rights abuses in the rest of the world. ``We hope to make America's official tolerance of police brutality the international scandal it should be,'' he added. The report gives few figures for the overall incidence of police brutality and does not come to any conclusions on whether the police have grown more or less violent. Roth and the author of the report, Allyson Collins, said this was because good data are not available. Even where the police count the number of complaints, the numbers are open to various interpretations, they said. In New York City, for example, complaints against the police have risen 62 percent since the city launched an aggressive policing policy in 1993, from 5,487 a year to 8,869 in 1996. Several explanations are possible.
A Civil Complaint Review Board in New York received 18,336 complaints against police officers between 1993, when it became independent, and 1996. It upheld 972, leading to disciplinary action against 215 officers and the dismissal of one. But it is impossible to judge how many of the complaints really are frivolous or how many serious ones are ignored. One recommendation in Human Rights Watch report is that the Justice Department comply with a 1994 congressional requirement that it collect data on police use of excessive force. ``(Attorney General) Janet Reno's Justice Department has yet to comply. Its current data collection efforts are carefully calculated to avoid tackling the problem head on. They are thinly disguised exercises in irrelevancy,'' Roth said. The Clinton administration, despite its links with the minority communities, has made no more prosecutions in civil rights cases than the previous Bush administration, he added. In 1997, it made 29 prosecutions from 11,000 civil rights complaints, many of them against the police.
``At the state and local level we find indifference and complicity, beginning with the many cops on the beat who honor a code of silence. It extends to police commanders and supervisors who frequently ignore brutality,'' Roth said. ``Internal affairs units often conduct shoddy or biased investigations. Civilian complaint mechanisms are underfunded and toothless,'' he added. To counter this, Human Rights Watch recommended the federal government make grants to police forces dependent on regular reporting and improvements in oversight and discipline. Each state should appoint a special prosecutor to deal with police officers accused of human rights violations, because most district attorneys are reluctant to act, it added. Human Rights Watch said the impetus must come from political will among leaders. ``The solution to police abuse must begin with a clear message from the top,'' Roth said.
But Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association, told the same news conference that he doubted the will existed, especially when police chiefs are so much in awe of police unions which oppose any scrutiny of the way officers behave. Cities studied in the report were: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), Providence, San Francisco and Washington. ^REUTERS@

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