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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Policing the police

Published On Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Oscar Grant's murder raises questions about cop culture

As most of the nation celebrated a hallmark of racial reconciliation on Tuesday, Oakland stood apart. For the past two weeks, the California city has been engulfed by racially tinged protests over the brutal New Years Day killing of 22-year old Oscar Grant III by transit officer Johannes Mehserle. Grant and a few friends were returning home from New Years Eve revelry, when they were stopped by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police for rowdy behavior. As documented by several amateur cell phone videos, Grant, who was unarmed, appeared to act cooperatively. Mehserle, however, threw him facedown onto the ground, and straddled his back while another officer squatted near Grant’s neck. Mehserle then drew his gun and fired into Grant’s back. The officer has resigned, but now faces murder charges to which he has pleaded not guilty.

Certainly, this specific incident should be condemned on all fronts. Grant’s shooting was unwarranted, and so were the transit officers’ hyper aggressive and disrespectful treatment of Grant and his cohorts throughout the episode. The fact that Grant was black and Mehserle is white has aggravated the charges of misconduct.

The shooting, however, should prompt police and law enforcement generally to reflect upon the culture of police and civilian relationships. Given the pervasiveness of police brutality, it is clear that something has gone awry in police culture. While we cannot speak to the effectiveness or quality of training that cops receive, these processes stand to be reevaluated in light of this incident. Citizens must be able to trust that the police will protect them while respecting their personal liberties. Stricter limitations and guidelines must be set in order to ensure that the police mistreat no one.

According to Justice Department statistics, cases in which law enforcement authorities have used excessive force or tactics to violate victim’s civil rights have increased 25 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2007 —and the overwhelming majority of police brutality cases referred by investigators are never formally prosecuted. The Oakland incident has engendered such protest because it confirms, with a live videotape, the suspicions many civilians have about the integrity of their police. This issue is salient around the country. Last year, New York City police officers frisked more than 500,000 people, although they arrested only 4 percent of them. Of those frisked, 80 percent were black or Latino.

The imperative for restraint goes further than the obvious need for cops to take care with loaded guns. Brutality is not defined by a weapon but by a mentality; it can occur with a baton, Taser or even bare fists. The mistake is not in the specific physical harm done by the police, but by the general propensity to abuse these positions of power.

Police departments might need to make unprecedented changes in order to ensure the integrity of police protection. This may mean reducing the number of armed cops on the street, or reevaluating exactly which cops truly need guns to facilitate their duties. For example, in the Bay Area, transit police are employed to preserve the safety of transit riders. In the majority of cases, a gun might not be needed to fulfill this objective, as shown by this recent incident, guns may counter that purpose. Departments could, alternatively, become more stringent about the police’s freedom to use lethal force. Drawing a gun should be a very last resort—a tactic used when an officer’s life is at stake and shooting would be the only sufficient defense.

Oscar Grant is not the first to die from police brutality, but his murder has made headlines as one of the best documented. We hope this attention can be channeled into constructive change.

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