FIGHTING POLICE ABUSE: A COMMUNITY ACTION MANUAL
American Civil Liberties Union
132 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
Kenneth B. Clark
CHAIR, NATIONAL ADVISORY COUNCIL
The Department of Public Education thanks ACLU National Board member
Samuel Walker for his invaluable assistance this project, from his
authorship of the original draft of this manual to the advice he provided
all along the way. We also thank John Crew, director of the Police
Practices Project of the ACLU/Northern California, and Gene Guerrero,
Field Coordinator in the ACLU's National Washington Office, who generously
contributed their wise counsel and expertise.
-- Loren Siegel, Director
Produced by the ACLU Department of Public Education
EDITOR: Jean Carey Bond
Copyright 1992 American Civil Liberties Union. All rights reserved
PREFACE by Ira Glasser
SOME OPERATING ASSUMPTIONS
GETTING STARTED: IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM
GATHER THE FACTS
Forget the Official Data
What You Really Need to Know, And Why
Where To Get The Information, And How
CONTROLLING THE POLICE: COMMUNITY GOALS
A Civilian Review Board
Control of Police Shootings
Reduce Police Brutality
End Police Spying
Oversight of Police Policy
Equal Employment Opportunity
Certification and Licensing of Police Officers
Accreditation of Your Police Department
Monitor the Police
Use Open Records Laws
Educate the Public
Use the Political Process to Win Reforms
Lobby For State Legislation
A FINAL WORD
One year ago today, the American public was riveted by an incident that
would become synonymous with police brutality: the beating of a young man
named Rodney King. An amateur video, televised nationwide, showed King
handcuffed and lying on the ground while three officers of the Los Angeles
Police Department (LAPD) kicked him and struck him repeatedly with their
nightsticks. No one who viewed that beating will ever forget its
Politicians were quick to condemn it. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley
declared that he was "shocked and outraged." President George Bush said
the beating "made me sick" and called for an end to "gratuitous violence
and brutality." The U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, the Los Angeles
County District Attorney's office and the Internal Affairs Division of the
LAPD all announced investigations. Civil rights, civil liberties and
local community groups demanded the immediate resignation of L.A. Police
Chief Daryl F. Gates, long known for his disregard of citizen complaints
and tolerance of unnecessary physical force by members of his department.
Subsequently, Mayor Bradley appointed the civilian Christopher Commission
to investigate the King beating and Chief Gates' leadership. In July
1991, the commission issued a report and recommendations for extensive
reforms, including the resignation of Gates.
But as we mark this first anniversary of the incident that catapulted the
reality of police abuse into living rooms across the nation, we're
compelled to note that too little has changed. Chief Gates is still in
command at the LAPD. Few of the Christopher Commission's recommendations
have been implemented. And police abuse, especially against people of
color, remains a major national problem:
> On September 2, 1991, 27 year-old Darryl Antonio Stephens was shot
and killed by West Covina, California police officers who were serving a
search warrant in the course of an investigation. The officers said
Stephens had made a furtive movement while kneeling next to his bed.
Stephens was unarmed and not a suspect in the investigation.
> On August 6, 1991, 31 year-old Gregory R. Jones, who was
handcuffed and in custody, was shot in the back by a Seattle officer when
he broke away from his police escorts.
> On September 12, 1991, nine AIDS activists were clubbed, maced and
beaten by Philadelphia police officers while demonstrating peacefully
against an appearance by President Bush at a downtown hotel.
Police work is multifaceted, stressful, difficult and dangerous.
Moreover, constant confrontation with the human face of our country's most
severe social problems almost inevitably engenders in some officers such a
dim view of the public they are supposed to serve that they eschew
completely the role of "servant" for that of "warrior." But even many law
enforcement experts realize that police abuse should not be ignored, and
that, in fact, it obstructs good law enforcement. The ACLU supports the
efforts of, and works closely with, police organizations like the Police
Executive Research Forum (PERF), the Police Foundation, the National
Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and the National
Black Police Association to foster fair and humane policing policies.
Most of our political leaders and institutions, unfortunately, have failed
to seriously address the problem. Ordinary citizens, therefore, must do
what they can to effect change themselves. That's why the ACLU has
published Fighting Police Abuse: A Community Action Manual -- to help the
residents of communities all over the United States demand and get police
accountability. It reflects the knowledge and experience gained by the
ACLU and other groups over more than two decades.
This manual was not inspired by, nor is it intended to generate, animosity
toward the police, or to promote the perception that all police officers
are prone to abusive conduct. Indeed, I know personally that many police
officers -- including many chiefs -- were just as horrified by the beating
of Rodney King as I was. The manual arose out of our realization that,
ultimately, it will take a strong and sustained effort by community groups
to bring about real and lasting reform of police practices.
American Civil Liberties Union
March 3, 1992
I. SOME OPERATING ASSUMPTIONS
THE BAD NEWS...
...is that police abuse is a serious problem. It has a long history, and
it seems to defy all attempts at eradication.
The problem is national -- no police department in the country is known to
be completely free of misconduct -- but it must be fought locally. The
nation's 19,000 law enforcement agencies are essentially independent.
While some federal statutes that specify criminal penalties for willful
violations of civil rights and conspiracies to violate civil rights, the
United States Department of Justice has been insufficiently aggressive in
prosecuting cases of police abuse. There are shortcomings, too, in
federal law itself, which does not permit "pattern and practice" lawsuits.
The battle against police abuse must, therefore, be fought primarily on
the local level.
THE GOOD NEWS...
...is that the situation is not hopeless. Policing has seen much
progress. Some reforms do work, and some types of abuse have been
reduced. Today, among both police officials and rank and file officers it
is widely recognized that police brutality hinders good law enforcement.
To fight police abuse effectively, you must have realistic expectations.
You must not expect too much of any one remedy because no single remedy
will cure the problem. A "mix" of reforms is required. And even after
citizen action has won reforms, your community must keep the pressure on
through monitoring and oversight to ensure that the reforms are actually
Nonetheless, even one person, or a small group of persistent people, can
make a big difference. Sometimes outmoded and abusive police practices
prevail largely because no one has ever questioned them. In such cases,
the simple act of spotlighting a problem can have a powerful effect that
leads to reform. Just by raising questions, one person or a few people --
who need not be experts -- can open up some corner of the
all-too-secretive and insular world of policing to public scrutiny.
Depending on what is revealed, their inquiries can snowball into a full
blown examination by the media, the public and politicians.
II. GETTING STARTED: IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
You've got to address specific problems. The first step, then, is to
identify exactly what the police problems are in *your* city.
What's wrong with your police department is not necessarily the same as
what's wrong in another city. Police departments are different in size,
quality of management, local traditions and the severity of problems.
Some departments are gravely corrupt; others are relatively "clean" but
have poor relations with community residents. Also, a city's political
environment, which affects both how the police operate and the
possibilities for achieving reform, is different in every city. For
example, it is often easier to reform police procedures in cities that
have a tradition of "good government," or in cities where minorities are
well organized politically.
The range of police problems includes:
1) Excessive use of deadly force.
2) Excessive use of physical force.
3) Discriminatory patterns of arrest.
4) Patterns of harassment of such "undesirables" as the homeless, youth,
minorities and gays, including aggressive and discriminatory use of the
"stop-and-frisk" and overly harsh enforcement of petty offenses.
5) Chronic verbal abuse of citizens, including racist, sexist and
6) Discriminatory non-enforcement of the law, such as the failure to
respond quickly to calls in low-income areas, and half-hearted
investigations of domestic violence, rape or hate crimes.
7) Spying on political activists.
8) Employment discrimination -- in hiring, promotion and assignments, and
internal harassment of minority, women and gay or lesbian police
9) The "code of silence" and retaliation against officers who report abuse
and/or support reforms.
10) Overreaction to "gang" problems, which is driven by the assumption
that most or all associational activity is gang-related. This includes
illegal mass stops and arrests, and demanding photo IDs from young men
based on their race and dress instead of their criminal conduct.
11) The "war on drugs," with its overbroad searches and other tactics that
endanger innocent bystanders. This "war" wastes scarce resources on
unproductive "buy and bust" operations to the neglect of more promising
12) Lack of accountability, such as the failure to discipline or prosecute
abusive officers, and the failure to deter abuse by denying promotions
and/or particular assignments because of prior abusive behavior.
13) Crowd control tactics that infringe on free expression rights and lead
to unnecessary use of physical force.
SIDEBAR: HOW MUCH BRUTALITY?
How common is police brutality? Unfortunately, measuring this problem in
a scientific fashion has always been very difficult. In the first
systematic study, The Police and the Public (1971), Albert Reiss found the
overall rate of unwarranted force to be low Ä only about one percent of
all encounters with citizens; even less than that by another calculation.
But Reiss hastened to point out that individual incidents accumulate over
time, and since poor men are the most frequent victims of police abuse,
they experience both real and perceived harassment by the police.
In 1982, the federal government funded a "Police Services Study," in which
12,022 randomly selected citizens were interviewed in three metropolitan
areas. The study found that 13.6 percent of those surveyed had cause to
complain about police service in the previous year (this included verbal
abuse and discourtesy, as well as physical force). Yet, only 30 percent
of the people filed formal complaints. In other words, most instances of
police misconduct go unreported.
Community activists, take note: Your local police department or local news
media may produce official figures showing a low rate of alleged abuse,
but those figures do not reflect unreported incidents. Moreover, a low
overall rate masks the much higher rate of abuse suffered by poor men --
poor men of color in particular.
III. GATHER THE FACTS
The first thing to bear in mind about the "homework" community residents
have to do in order to build a strong case for reform is that obtaining
the most relevant information on the activities of your police department
can be a tough task. In answer to critics, police chiefs often cite
various official data to support their claim that they are really doing a
great job. "Look at the crime rate," they say, "it's lower than in other
cities." Or: "My department's arrest rate is much higher than elsewhere."
The catch is that these data, though readily available to citizens, are
deeply flawed, while the most telltale information is not always easy to
FORGET The "Crime Rate." The "crime rate" figures cited by
government officials are based on the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR)
system, which has several serious flaws. To name only a few: First, the
UCR only measures *reported* crime. Second, since the system is not
independently audited there are no meaningful controls over how police
departments use their crime data. Police officers can and do "unfound"
crimes, meaning they decide that no crime occurred. They also "downgrade"
crimes -- for example, by officially classifying a rape as an assault.
Third, reports can get "lost," either deliberately or inadvertently.
There are many other technical problems that make the UCR a dubious
measure of the extent of crime problems.
The National Crime Survey (NCS), published by another part of the U.S.
Justice Department, provides a far more accurate estimate of the national
crime rate and of long-term trends in crime. But it is a national-level
estimate and does not provide data on individual cities. So the NCS isn't
much help on the local level.
FORGET The "Clearance Rate." A police department's official data
on its "clearance rate," which refers to the percentage of crimes solved,
do not accurately reflect that department's performance. The fact that one
department "clears" 40 percent of all robberies, compared with 25 percent
by another department, doesn't necessarily mean it is more effective.
There are too many ways to manipulate the data, either by claiming a
larger number of crimes "cleared" (inflating the numerator), or by
artificially lowering the number of reported crimes (lowering the
FORGET The arrest rate. Police officers have broad discretion in
making and recording arrests. The Police Foundation (in Washington,
D.C.), which conducts research on policing issues, has found great
variations among police departments in their recording of arrests. In
many departments, police officers take people into custody, hold them at
the station, question and then release them without filling out an arrest
report. For all practical purposes, these people were "arrested," but
their arrests don't show up in the official data. Other departments
record such arrests. Thus, the department that reports a lower number of
arrests may actually be taking more people into custody than the
department that reports more arrests.
FORGET The citizen complaint rate. Official data on the complaints
filed by citizens regarding police conduct are important but present a
number of problems. Many departments do not release any information on
this subject. Some publish a smattering of information on complaints and
the percentage of complaints sustained by the department. In more and
more cities, the civilian review agency publishes this data.
Data on citizen complaints are difficult to interpret. Some examples: In
1990, it was widely reported that San Francisco, with less than 2,000
police officers, had more citizen complaints than Los Angeles, which has
more than 8,000 officers. What that may mean, however, is that Los
Angeles residents are afraid to file reports or don't believe it would do
any good. San Francisco has a relatively independent civilian review
process, which may encourage the filing of more complaints. Also in 1990,
New York City reported a decline from previous years in the number of
citizen complaints filed. But many analysts believe that simply reflected
New Yorkers' widespread disillusionment with their civilian review board.
Citizen complaints filed in Omaha, Nebraska doubled after the mayor
allowed people to file their complaints at City Hall, as well as the
Another problem is that in some police departments with internal affairs
systems, officers often try to dissuade people from filing formal
complaints that will later become part of an officer's file. And the
number of complaints counted is also affected by whether or not the
internal affairs system accepts anonymous complaints and complaints by
phone or mail, or requires in-person, sworn statements.
Thus, the official "complaint rate" (complaints per 1,000 citizens),
rather than being a reliable measure of police performance, more than
likely reflects the administrative customs of a particular police
WHAT YOU *REALLY* NEED TO KNOW, AND WHY
A. Police shootings. You need to know about police firearms discharges,
which refer to the number of times a police weapon has been fired. This
information is more complete than statistics on the number of persons shot
and wounded or killed. (However, information on the race of persons shot
and wounded or killed is important.) Particularly important is information
on repeat shooters, which can tell you whether some officers fire their
weapons at a suspiciously high rate.
With this information, you can evaluate the use of deadly force in your
department. You can also evaluate the long-term trends in shootings. Are
shootings increasing or decreasing? Has there been a recent upsurge? How
does the department compare with other departments -- are officers
shooting at a significantly higher rate in your department than elsewhere?
SIDEBAR: WHO SHOOTS?
*Do some officers shoot more often than others? *Do white officers shoot
more often that black officers? *Do young officers shoot more often than
The most detailed analysis of police shootings was produced by James Fyfe,
a former police officer who is now a criminologist and expert on police
practices. He concluded that the single most important factor determining
patterns of shooting is place of assignment.
Fyfe's findings showed that: Black and white officers assigned to similar
precincts fired their weapons at essentially the same rate; since new
officers are assigned to less desirable, high crime precincts based on the
seniority system, younger officers shoot more often than older officers;
and since a disproportionate number of black officers are young due to
recent affirmative action programs, black officers shoot more often than
white officers -- but as a function of assignment, not race.
Fyfe found significant differences in shooting patterns between police
departments. The overall shooting rate in some departments was
significantly higher than in others, a disparity that he attributed to
differences in department policy.
SOURCE: James J. Fyfe, "Who Shoots? - - A Look At Officer, Race And Police
Shooting." Journal of Police Science And Administration; Volume 9,
December 1981; pp. 367-382.
B. Use of physical force. You need to know how frequently, day to day,
police officers in your city use physical force in the course of their
encounters with citizens. Do officers try to refrain from using such
force against citizens, or do they quickly and casually resort to force?
In its report on the Los Angeles police department in the aftermath of the
March 1991 beating of Rodney King, the Christopher Commission confirmed a
long held suspicion: a small number of officers are involved in an
extraordinarily high percentage of use of force incidents. Ten percent of
the officers accounted for 33.2% of all use of force incidents. The
Commission was able to identify 44 such officers who were not disciplined
despite the fact that they were the subjects of numerous citizen
In 1981, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found a similar pattern in
Houston and recommended, as a remedy, that police departments establish
"early warning systems" to identify officers with high rates of citizen
Patterns in the use of physical force reveal a lot about the "culture" of
a particular police department. Clearly, a department whose officers
repeatedly engage in physically coercive conduct needs reform. Police
officials often deny that their personnel are prone to using force
inappropriately, so if your community believes it has a problem in this
area citizens must be able to support their claims with existing data, or
data they have gathered themselves.
SIDEBAR: RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IN POLICE SHOOTINGS
These data indicate a clear pattern of racial discrimination. The
disparity between whites and blacks shot and killed is extreme in the
category of persons "unarmed and not assaultive." These are classic
"fleeing felon" situations in which, prior to 1985, Memphis Police
Department policy and the common law of many states permitted officers to
use deadly force. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is
unconstitutional for a police officer to shoot a suspected felon in
flight who does not pose an immediate danger to the officer or public.
The case -- Tennessee v. Garner -- involved Edward Garner, a 15 year-old
black youth who, though unarmed, was shot and killed while trying to flee
the scene of a suspected burglary.
POLICE SHOOTINGS IN MEMPHIS 1969-1974
Person Shot and Killed Number Shot and Killed
Armed and Assaultive 5 7
Unarmed and Assaultive 2 6
Unarmed and Not Assaultive 1 13
SOURCE; James J. Fyfe, "Blind Justice: Police Shootings in Memphis,"
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 73 (1982, No. 2); pp. 707-722.
C. Official policies. You need to know whether your local police
department has formal, written policies that set forth how officers are
supposed to behave in particular situations. How does the department
treat domestic violence complaints? What is the policy on how officers
are supposed to deal with homeless people? Does the department use
canine patrols and, if so, under what circumstances?
In examining official policies, you need to evaluate them
in comparison to recommended standards.
D. Lawsuits. You need to know how many lawsuits citizens have filed
against your local police department. You want to know what the charges
were, the number of officers involved, whether certain officers are named
repeatedly in suits, what was the outcome and, in the case of successful
suits, how much did the city pay in damages.
The number of lawsuits filed against a police department can be very
revealing. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported that the city paid
$64 million (of citizens' tax money!) in damages for abuses by the Los
Angeles Police Department and county sheriff's office in just three years
-- 1989-1991. In 1990 alone, New York City paid victims of police
misconduct a record high of more than $13 million. This kind of
information can be used to mobilize middle-class taxpayers and
"good-government" activists, who can then be brought into a community
coalition against police abuse.
E. Minority employment. You need to know how many African Americans,
Hispanics, Asians, other minorities and women are employed by your police
department and their distribution throughout the department's ranks.
This information is useful in assessing, again, the "culture" of your
local police department -- is it internally diverse, fair and equitable?
It also suggests how much value the department places on the "human
relations" aspects of its work, and how responsive it is to community
WHERE TO GET THE INFORMATION, AND HOW
Police business is generally shrouded in secrecy, which conceals
outdated policies and departmental inertia, encourages cover-ups and, of
course, breeds public suspicion. But remember: Police departments are an
arm of government, and *the government's business is your business*.
Police policies, procedures, memoranda, records, reports, tape recordings,
etc. should not be withheld from public view unless their release would
threaten on-going investigations, endanger officers or others, or invade
someone's personal privacy.
Demanding information about police practices is an important part of the
struggle to establish police accountability. Indeed, a campaign focused
solely on getting information from the police can serve as a vehicle for
organizing a community to tackle police abuse. Regarding all of the
following categories, one of the tactics your community could employ is to
interest a local investigative journalist in seeking information from the
police for a series of articles. Once in hand, the information is a tool
for holding the police accountable for their actions.
A. Police Shootings. Virtually every big city police department has this
information on hand, since officers are required to file a report after
every firearms discharge. Departments are supposed to publish a summary
of weapons discharges every year, but they don't usually release the
information voluntarily. Strong civilian review boards in a few cities
now publish the information. As for repeat shooters, this information
exists in police reports but police departments vigorously resist
identifying repeat shooters. There are several ways to proceed:
(1) As an organizing strategy, demand that the police department
publish this data, identify the repeaters and take appropriate remedial
action (counseling, retraining, formal discipline, transfer, etc.)
(2) Alternatively, since it isn't essential that officers be
identified by name, demand that they be identified simply by a code
number, which can focus public attention on the problem of excessive
(3) Visit your local civilian review agency, if one exists. These
agencies often have the authority to collect and release a range of
information about local police conduct.
SIDEBAR: ON DRUGS, GANGS AND POLICE OFFICER SAFETY
Police work remains dangerous, and many police officers contend that they
need greater freedom to use deadly force today because of the increase in
heavily armed drug gangs.
But in fact, police work is much less dangerous than it used to be. The
number of officers killed in the line of duty is half of what it was
nearly 20 years ago. According to the FBI, the number of officers killed
dropped from 134 in 1973 to 67 in 1990. That reduced death rate is even
more dramatic considering the increase in the number of police officers on
duty in the field.
Police officers have not been the victims of "drive-by" gang shootings.
Innocent by-standers and rival gang members have been the victims.
The police do not need more firepower.
B. Physical Force. There are three potential sources of data on police
use of physical force.
(1) Data developed by community residents. Community residents can
make a significant contribution to documenting physical force abuses and,
in the process, organize. They can bear witness to, and record, abuse
incidents, take information from others who have witnessed incidents,
refute police department arguments that there is no problem and help
document the inadequacies of the police department's official complaint
The San Diego chapter of the ACLU's Southern California affiliate
set up "police hotline," which is listed in the Yellow Pages, to receive
complaints about the police. The chapter's first report on the hotline,
issued in August 1990, offers some useful information about complaint
patterns. The Police Watch in Los Angeles compiles similar data. To
receive a copy of the San Diego ACLU report, write to the ACLU/San
Diego, 1202 Kettner Boulevard, Suite 6200, San Diego, CA 92101, or
call (619) 232-2121. Police Watch can be contacted at 611 South Catalina,
Suite 409, Los Angeles, CA 90005; (213)387-3325.
(2) Formal complaints filed by citizens. Most police departments
do not make this information public. Some publish summary data in their
annual report, so consult that document. In a number of cities, civilian
review agencies publish it, so check with that agency in your city. The
annual reports of the New York City Citizen Complaint Review Board (CCRB)
and San Francisco's Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) provide fairly
(3) Internal police reports. An increasing number of police
departments require officers to fill out reports after any use of physical
force. This is a larger set of data than the citizen complaints would
provide, since many citizens don't file complaints even when they have
cause to do so. Ask to see these reports.
C. Official Policies. Your police department has a Standard Operating
Procedure (SOP) manual (it may have another title) that contains the
official policies of the department. The SOP manual is a public document
and should be readily available. Some departments place current copies in
local libraries. Others treat it as an internal document not available to
the public -- which is unacceptable. Demand to see the manual, if your
department withholds it. As a last resort, you can file suit under your
state's open records law to obtain the SOP manual.
D. Lawsuits. Lawsuits brought against police departments are matters of
public record. Records of suits brought in state courts reside at your
local state courthouse; of suits brought in federal district court, at
your local federal courthouse. The Lexis computer database is a source of
published opinions in civilian suits brought against the police. However,
collecting information from any of these sources is a very laborious task.
Better to contact your local ACLU affiliate and/or other relevant public
interest groups, which may have done most of the work for you. In the
back of this manual, find the name and address of your local ACLU and
E. Minority Employment. Official data on this issue are generally
reliable and available from your local police department. If the police
stonewall, you can get the information from the city's personnel
division. The point is to evaluate the police department's minority
employment record relative to local conditions. Using current data,
compare the percentage of a particular group of people in the local
population with that group's representation on the police force. If, for
example, Hispanic Americans are 30 percent of the population but only 15
percent of the sworn officers, the your police department is only half
way toward achieving an ideal level of diversity.
IV. CONTROLLING THE POLICE: COMMUNITY GOALS
GOAL #1: A CIVILIAN REVIEW BOARD
Civilian review of police activity was first proposed in the 1950s because
of widespread dissatisfaction with the internal disciplinary procedures of
police departments. Many citizens didn't believe that police officials
took their complaints seriously. They suspected officials of
investigating allegations of abuse superficially at best, and of covering
up misconduct. The theory underlying the concept of civilian review is
that civilian investigations of citizen complaints are more independent
because they are conducted by people who are not sworn officers.
At first, civilian review was a dream few thought would ever be fulfilled.
But slow, steady progress has been made, indicating that it's an idea
whose time has come. By the end of 1991, more than 60 percent of the
nation's 50 largest cities had civilian review systems, half of which were
established between 1986 and 1991.
Civilian review advocates in every city have had to overcome substantial
resistance from local police departments. One veteran of the struggle for
civilian review has chronicled the stages of police opposition as follows:
> the "over our dead bodies" stage, during which police will not accept
any type of civilian oversight under any circumstances;
> the "magical conversion" stage, when it becomes politically inevitable
that civilian review will be adopted. At this point, former police
opponents suddenly become civilian review experts and propose the weakest
> the "post-partum resistance" stage, when the newly established civilian
review board must fight police opposition to its budget, authority, access
to information, etc.
Strong community advocacy is necessary to overcome resistance at every
stage, even after civilian review is established.
WHAT IS CIVILIAN REVIEW?
Confusion reigns about civilian review systems because they vary
tremendously. Some are more "civilian" than others. Some are not boards
but municipal agencies headed by an executive director (who has been
appointed by, and is accountable to, the mayor).
The three basic types of civilian review systems are:
(1) Type I. Persons who are not sworn officers conduct the initial
fact-finding. They submit an investigative report to a non-officer or
board of non-officers, requesting a recommendation of discipline or
leniency. This process is the most independent and most "civilian."
(2) Type II. Sworn officers conduct the initial fact-finding. They
submit an investigative report to a non-officer or board of non-officers
for a recommendation.
(3) Type III. Sworn officers conduct the initial fact-finding and make a
recommendation to the police chief. If the aggrieved citizen is not
satisfied with the chief's action on the complaint, he or she may appeal
to aboard that includes non-officers. Obviously, this process is the
Although the above are the most common, other types of civilian review
systems also exist.
SIDEBAR: TEN PRINCIPLES FOR AN EFFECTIVE CIVILIAN REVIEW BOARD
1 Independence. The power to conduct hearings, subpoena witnesses and
report findings and recommendations to the public.
2 Investigatory Power. The authority to independently investigate
incidents and issue findings on complaints.
3 Mandatory Police Cooperation. Complete access to police witnesses and
documents through legal mandate or subpoena power.
4 Adequate Funding. Should not be a lower budget priority than police
internal affairs systems.
5 Hearings. Essential for solving credibility questions and enhancing
public confidence in process.
6 Reflect Community Diversity. Board and staff should be broadly
representative of the community it serves.
7 Policy Recommendations. Civilian oversight can spot problem policies
and provide a forum for developing reforms.
8 Statistical Analysis. Public statistical reports can detail trends in
allegations, and early warning systems can identify officers who are
subjects of unusually numerous complaints.
9 Separate Offices. Should be housed away from police headquarters to
maintain independence and credibility with public.
10 Disciplinary Role. Board findings should be considered in determining
appropriate disciplinary action.
WHY IS CIVILIAN REVIEW IMPORTANT?
* Civilian review establishes the principle of police accountability.
Strong evidence exists to show that a complaint review system encourages
citizens to act on their grievances. Even a weak civilian review process
is far better than none at all.
* A civilian review agency can be an important source of information about
police misconduct. A civilian agency is more likely to compile and
publish data on patterns of misconduct, especially on officers with
chronic problems, than is a police internal affairs agency.
* Civilian review can alert police administrators to the steps they must
take to curb abuse in their departments. Many well-intentioned police
officials have failed to act decisively against police brutality because
internal investigations didn't provide them with the facts.
* The existence of a civilian review agency, a reform in itself, can help
ensure that other needed reforms are implemented. A police department can
formulate model policies aimed at deterring and punishing misconduct, but
those policies will be meaningless unless a system is in place to
guarantee that the policies are aggressively enforced.
* Civilian review *works*, if only because it's at least a vast improvement
over the police policing themselves. Nearly all existing civilian review
* reduce public reluctance to file complaints;
* reduce procedural barriers to filing complaints;
* enhance the likelihood that statistical reporting on complaints
will be more complete;
* enhance the likelihood of an independent review of abuse
* foster confidence in complainants that they will get their "day in
court" through the hearing process;
* increase scrutiny of police policies that lead to citizen
* increase opportunities for other reform efforts.
*A campaign to establish a civilian review agency, or to strengthen an
already existing agency, is an excellent vehicle for community organizing.
In Indianapolis, for example, a civilian review campaign brought about,
not only the establishment of a civilian review agency, but an effective
coalition between the Indiana ACLU, the local branch of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other
community groups that could take future action on other issues.
Your community's campaign should seek the strongest possible civilian
review system, one that is fully independent and designed for easy access.
But if all you can get adopted is a weak system, take it with the
understanding that once it's created you can press for changes to make it
more independent and effective.
GOAL #2: CONTROL OF POLICE SHOOTINGS
Police misconduct in the use of deadly force is an area in which
considerable progress has been made. Although the rate of deadly force
abuse is still intolerably high, national data reveal reductions, by as
much as 35-to-40 percent in our 50 largest cities, in the number of
persons shot and killed by the police since the mid-1970s. This has been
accompanied by a significant reduction in the racial disparities among
persons shot and killed: since the 1970s, from about six minority persons
to one white person, down to three minority persons to one white.
This progress serves as a model for controlling other forms of police
behavior. How was it achieved?
In the mid-1970s, police departments began to develop restrictive internal
policies on the use of deadly force. These embodied the "defense of life"
standard, which allows the use of deadly force only when the life of an
officer or some other person is in danger. In 1985, the Supreme Court
finally upheld this standard in the case of Tennessee v. Garner (see
sidebar, "Racial Discrimination in Police Shootings"). However, the
majority of policies adopted by police departments go beyond the courts
Garner decision, prohibiting warning shots, shots to wound, and other
reckless actions. Most important, these policies require officers to file
written reports after each firearms discharge, and require that those
reports be automatically reviewed by higher-ranking officers.
To meet goal #2, your community must
(1) Ensure that the police department has a highly restrictive deadly
force policy. Most big city departments do. But the national trend data
on shootings suggest that medium-sized and small departments have not
caught up with the big cities, so much remains to be done there. Much
remains to be done as well in county sheriff and state police agencies,
which have not been subject to the same scrutiny as big city police
(2) Ensure enforcement of the deadly force policy through community
monitoring. To be accountable, the police department and/or the local
civilian review agency should publish summary data on shooting incidents.
Citizens should also be able to find out whether the department
disciplines officers who violate its policy, and whether certain officers
are repeatedly involved in questionable incidents.
SIDEBAR: THE HOUSTON POLICE DEPARTMENT'S DEADLY FORCE POLICY (1987)
POLICY: The Houston Police Department places its highest value on the life
and safety of its officers and the public. The department's policies,
rules and procedures are designed to ensure that this value guides police
officers' use of firearms.
RULES: The policy stated above is the basis of the following set of rules
that have been designed to guide officers in all cases involving the use
*The citizens of Houston have vested in their police officers
the power to carry and use firearms in the exercise of their service to
society. This power is based on trust and, therefore, must be balanced by
a system of accountability. The serious consequences of the use of
firearms by police officers necessitate the specification of limits for
officers' discretion; there is often no appeal from an officer's decision
to use a firearm. Therefore, it is imperative that every effort be made
to ensure that such use is not only legally warranted but also rational
*The basic responsibility of police officers to protect life also requires
that they exhaust all other reasonable means for apprehension and control
before resorting to the use of firearms. Police officers are equipped
with firearms as a means of last resort to protect themselves and others
from the immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury.
*Even though all officers must be prepared to use their firearms
when necessary, the utmost restraint must be exercised in their use.
Consequently, no officer will be disciplined for discharging a firearm in
self-defense or in defense of another when faced with a situation that
immediately threatens life or serious bodily injury. Just as important, no
officer will be disciplined for not discharging a firearm if that
discharge might threaten the life or safety of an innocent person, or if
the discharge is not clearly warranted by the policy and rules of the
*Above all, this department values the safety of its employees and the
public. Likewise it believes that police officers should use firearms
with a high degree of restraint. Officers' use of firearms, therefore,
shall never be considered routine and is permissible only in defense of
life and then only after all alternative means have been exhausted.
RULE 1: Police officers shall not discharge their firearms except to
protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious bodily
RULE 2: Police officers shall discharge their firearms only when doing so
will not endanger innocent persons.
RULE 3: Police officers shall not discharge their firearms to threaten or
subdue persons whose actions are destructive to property or injurious to
themselves but which do not represent an imminent threat of death or
serious bodily injury to the officer or others.
RULE 4: Police officers shall not discharge their firearms to subdue an
escaping suspect who presents no imminent threat of death or serious
RULE 5: Police officers shall not discharge their weapons at a moving
vehicle unless it is absolutely necessary to do so to protect against an
imminent threat to the life of the officer or others.
RULE 6: Police officers when confronting an oncoming vehicle shall attempt
to move out of the path, if possible, rather than discharge their firearms
at the oncoming vehicle.
RULE 7: Police officers shall not intentionally place themselves in the
path of an oncoming vehicle and attempt to disable the vehicle by
discharging their firearms.
RULE 8: Police officers shall not discharge their firearms at a fleeing
vehicle or its driver.
RULE 9: Police officers shall not fire warning shots.
RULE 10: Police officers shall not draw or display their firearms unless
there is a threat or probably cause to believe there is a threat to life,
or for inspection.
GOAL #3: REDUCE POLICE BRUTALITY
Your community's principal aim here should be to get the police department
to adopt and enforce a written policy governing the use of physical force.
This policy should have two parts:
(1) It should explicitly restrict physical force to the narrowest possible
range of specific situations. For example, a policy on the use of batons
should forbid police officers from striking citizens in "non-target"
areas, such as the head and spine, where permanent injuries can result.
Mace should be used defensively, not offensively. Since electronic stun
guns (Novas and Taser) have great potential for abuse because they don't
leave scars or bruises, their use should be strictly controlled,
supervised and reviewed.
(2) It should require that a police officer file a written report after
*any* use of physical force, and that report should be automatically
reviewed by high ranking officers.
Your community's second objective should be to get the police department
to establish an early warning system to identify officers who are involved
in an inordinate number of incidents that include the inappropriate use of
physical force. The incidents should then be investigated and, if
verified, the officers involved should be charged, disciplined,
transferred, re-trained or offered counseling -- depending on the severity
of their misconduct. The Christopher Commission's report on the Rodney
King beating ascertained that the Los Angeles police leadership typically
looked the other way when officers were involved in questionable
incidents. This tolerance of brutality by the top brass helped create an
atmosphere conducive to police abuses.
GOAL #4: END POLICE SPYING
Police spying, or intelligence gathering, on constitutionally protected
political, religious and private sexual behavior is an historic problem.
And it's particularly difficult to deal with because spying, by
definition, is a covert activity. The victim doesn't know it's happening,
and it's not witnessed by others.
During the 1970s, the ACLU and other public interest organizations brought
lawsuits against unconstitutional police surveillance in several cities
around the country, including New York City, Chicago, Memphis and Los
Angeles. These suits resulted in the imposition of stricter limits on
intelligence gathering by the police.
In Seattle in 1976, it came to light that local police were spying on
organizations of black construction workers, Native Americans, advocates
for low-income housing and other community activists whose conduct was
perfectly lawful. In response to the revelations, the ACLU, along with
the American Friends Service Committee and the National Lawyers Guild,
formed the Coalition on Government Spying. After several years of hard
work and lobbying, the coalition succeeded in bringing about passage of a
comprehensive municipal law -- the first of its kind in the country --
that governs all police investigations and restricts the collection of
political, religious and sexual information.
This law, called the Seattle Police Intelligence Ordinance, is an
important breakthrough and a model for other efforts. It contains three
elements that represent basic changes in police intelligence operations:
(1) "Restricted" information (that is, religious, political or sexual
information) can be collected only if a person is reasonably suspected of
having committed a crime, and the information must be relevant to that
(2) An independent civilian "auditor", appointed by the mayor and
confirmed by the city council, must review all police authorizations to
collect restricted information and have access to all other police files.
If the auditor finds that the police have violated the law, he or she must
so notify the individuals who are the subjects of the unlawful
(3) Any individual subjected to unlawful surveillance can bring a civil
action in court to stop the surveillance, and to collect damages from the
GOAL #5: GENERAL OVERSIGHT OF POLICE POLICY
Police policies should be subject to public review and debate instead of
being viewed as the sole province of police insiders. Open policy-making
not only allows police officials to benefit from community input, but it
also provides an opportunity for police officials to explain to the
public why certain tactics or procedures may be necessary. This kind of
communication between the police and the community can help anticipate
problems and avert crises before they occur.
The Police Review Commission (a civilian review body) of Berkeley,
California holds regular, bi-monthly meetings that are open to the public.
At these meetings, representatives of community organizations can voice
criticisms, make proposals and introduce resolutions to review or reform
specific police policies.
The Police Practices Project of the ACLU of Northern California
successfully pressured the San Francisco Police Department to adopt
enlightened policies in regard to the treatment of homeless people; the
use of pain holds and batons; the deployment of plainclothes officers at
protests and demonstrations; intelligence gathering; the selection of
field training officers, and AIDS/HIV education for police officers. The
Project has also prevented the adoption of bad policies, including an
anti-loitering rule and a policy that would have made demonstrators
financially liable for police costs.
In Tucson, Arizona, a Citizens' Police Advisory Committee was made part of
the city's municipal code in July 1990. The Committee, which is composed
of both civilian and police representatives, has the authority to initiate
investigations of controversial incidents or questionable policies, along
with other oversight functions.
SIDEBAR: CITIZEN-POLICE ADVISORY COMMITTEE
(Created by the Tucson Code, Sec. 10A-86)
(a) Consult with the governing body from time to time as may be required
by the Mayor and [City] Council.
(b) Assist the police in achieving a greater understanding of the nature
and causes of complex community problems in the area of human relations,
with special emphasis on the advancement and improvement of relations
between police and community minority groups.
(c) Study, examine and recommend methods, approaches and techniques to
encourage and develop an active citizen-police partnership in the
prevention of crime.
(d) Promote cooperative citizen-police programs and approaches to the
solutions of community crime problems, emphasizing the principal that the
administration of justice is a responsibility which requires total
(e) Recommend procedures, programs and/or legislation to enhance
cooperation among citizens of the community and police.
(f) Strive to strengthen and ensure throughout the community the
application of the principle of equal protection under the law for all
(g) Consult and cooperate with federal, state, city and other public
agencies, commissions and committees on matters within the committee's
(h) The committee may ask for and shall receive from the Police
Department, a review of action taken by the Department in incidents which
create community concern or controversy.
(i) The committee shall have the authority, should it so desire, to use
a specific incident as a vehicle for the examination of police policies,
procedures and priorities.
(j) At the discretion and express direction of the Mayor and Council,
assume and undertake such other tasks or duties as will facilitate the
accomplishment of these goals and objectives....
GOAL #6: IMPROVED TRAINING
Over the years, citizens' groups in some communities demanded more
education and training for police officers as part of their efforts to
solve the problem of police abuse. But at this juncture, the education
issue is somewhat moot because the educational levels of American police
officers have risen dramatically in recent years. By 1986, 22.6 percent
of all officers had four or more years of college. About 65 percent had
at least some college experience. The levels of education are highest
among new recruits, who, in many departments have about two years of
college. Moreover, no evidence exists to show that college educated
police officers perform better, or are more respectful of citizen's
rights, than less educated officers. In an abuse-prone department, all
officers are likely to engage in misconduct, regardless of education
The training of police personnel has also improved significantly in recent
years. The average length of police academy programs has more than
doubled, from about 300 to over 600 hours; in some cities, 900 or even
1200 hours are the rule. As the time devoted to training has increased,
the academies have added a number of important subjects to their
curricula: race relations, domestic violence, handling the mentally ill,
and so on.
Unquestionably, a rigorously trained, professional police force is a
desirable goal that should be pursued depending on local conditions. If
citizens in your community feel that this is an important issue, here's
what you should aim for:
> A first rate police academy curriculum. The curriculum should be near
the high end of the current scale -- 800 hours or more. It should include
a mix of classroom and supervised field training.
It should include training in the techniques of de-escalating violence.
In addition to being given weapons and taught how to use them, police
recruits should also learn special skills -- especially communications
skills -- to help them defuse and avert situations that might lead to the
necessary use of force.
It should include community sensitivity training. Training recruits to
handle issues of special significance in particular communities can lead
to a reduction in community-police tensions.
* The ACLU of Georgia, after a series of incidents occurred in Atlanta
involving police harassment of gays, helped provide regular training at
the local police academy to sensitize new recruits on gay and lesbian
* The Police Practices Project of the ACLU of Northern California
organized a group of homeless people to create a video for use in
sensitivity training at the San Francisco police academy.
* The ACLU of New Jersey, in response to complaints that state police were
harassing minority motorists and entrapping gay men during an undercover
operation in the men's room of a highway service area, joined the NAACP
and the Lesbian and Gay Coalition in initiating a series of meetings with
the new superintendent of the Division of State Police. The meetings
resulted in the introduction a two-week seminar on "Cultural Diversity and
Professionalism" that all 1,700 employees of the Division were required to
take within a year's time. Although it's too soon to evaluate the
seminar's impact on police conduct, the participating organizations
believe that at the very least it opened up lines of communication between
the community and the police.
Unfortunately, even the most enlightened training programs can be
undermined by veteran officers, who traditionally tell recruits out in the
field to "forget all that crap they taught you in the academy."
In San Francisco some years ago, men selected as field training officers
(FTOs) were found to have some of the worst complaint and litigation
records in the department. The evaluation scores they gave recruits
revealed their systematic attempts to weed out minority and women
officers. They labeled women recruits "bad drivers," gave Asians low
scores in radio communication and unfairly criticized African Americans
for their report-writing. The Northern California ACLU's Police Practices
Project joined other community groups in successfully pressuring the
police department to adopt stricter selection criteria for FTOs to ensure
greater racial and gender integration, fairer evaluations of recruits and
higher quality training.
GOAL #7: EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY
Historically, police departments, like other government agencies, have
engaged in employment discrimination. People of color have been grossly
underrepresented, and women were not even accepted as full-fledged
officers until the 1970s.
Some progress has been made in the last 15 to 20 years. Police
departments in several cities now have significant numbers of officers who
are people of color. A few departments even approach the theoretically
ideal level of maintaining forces that reflect the racial composition of
the communities they serve. Most departments now recruit and assign women
on an equal basis with men.
Nonetheless, the overall employment levels of women and minorities still
lag far behind the ideal. In 1986, only 8.8 percent of all sworn officers
were women. The San Francisco police force, even though it has been
operating under a court-approved consent decree for 12 years, is still
only 12 percent female and about 25 percent minority -- just a little more
than half the integration level the court required. These disparities are
most blatant at the highest ranks of virtually all police departments in
the country. Although a number of cities now have African American police
chiefs, only two big city departments have ever had female chiefs.
Improvements in police employment practices have come about largely as the
result of litigation under existing civil rights laws. However, the
courts may not be hospitable to employment discrimination claims in the
future. Therefore, community groups and civil rights organizations
should prepare to fight in the political arena for the integration of
In the short term, the recruitment of more women and minority officers may
not result in less police abuse. Several social science studies suggest
that minority and white officers do not differ greatly in their use of
physical or deadly force, or in their arrest practices. (Women officers,
on the other hand, are involved in citizen complaints at about half the
rate of male officers, according to the New York City CCRB.) Still, in the
long term, an integrated police force is a very important goal for these
(1) Integration will break down the isolation of police departments, as
they reflect more and more the composition of the communities they serve.
A representative police force will probably be less likely to behave like
an alien, occupying army. The visible presence of officers of color in
high-ranking command positions engenders public confidence in the ability
of police department personnel to identify, on human terms, with community
(2) Integration sends the important message that the primary enforcement
arm of "the law" is, itself, committed to the principles of equal
opportunity and equal protection of the law.
(3) Integration might, over time, reduce overtly racist/sexist
enforcement tactics and actions, including brutality.
GOAL #8: CERTIFICATION AND LICENSING OF POLICE OFFICERS
Every state now has procedures for certifying or licensing police officers
that require all sworn officers to have some minimum level of training.
This was one of the advances of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
An important new development is the advent of procedures for
_de_certifying officers. Traditionally, a police officer could be fired
from one department but then hired by another. As a result, persons
guilty of gross misconduct could continue to work as police officers.
Decertification bars a dismissed officer from further police employment in
that state (though not necessarily in some other state). Between 1976 and
1983, the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission
decertified 132 police officers.
Procedures for state-level certification/decertification are a worthy goal
to pursue. Be aware, however, that the state commission must have
sufficient power and resources to investigate misconduct complaints, and
must vigorously exercise its authority. And even so,
certification/decertification procedures are only one part of the
comprehensive approach that's needed to achieve meaningful police
GOAL #9: ACCREDITATION OF POLICE DEPARTMENTS
One result of the increasing number of lawsuits brought against police
departments by victims of abuse over the past 20 years was a movement,
within the police profession, for an accreditation process similar to that
in education and other fields whereby the police would establish and
enforce their own professional standards.
In 1979, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies
(COALEA) was established as a joint undertaking of several major
professional associations. COALEA published its first set of Standards
for Law Enforcement Agencies in 1985 and issues new standards
In deciding whether your community should press for accreditation of its
local police department, keep in mind these basic points.
(1) Accreditation is a voluntary process. A police department suffers no
penalty for not being accredited. (In contrast, lack of accreditation in
higher education carries penalties that include an institution's
ineligibility for student financial aid programs and non-recognition of
its awarded credits or degrees.)
(2) Current accreditation standards are minimum, rather than optimum.
They are very good in some respects but do not go far enough in covering
the critical uses of law enforcement powers.
(3) Accreditation might make a difference in the case of a truly backward,
unprofessional and poorly managed police department in that it could help
stimulate much needed and long overdue changes. On the other hand, a
police department can easily comply with all of the current standards and
still tolerate rampant brutality, spying and other abuses.
(4) Citizens in your particular community must decide whether, taking all
of the above into account, accreditation would serve as an effective
V. ORGANIZING STRATEGIES
Once your community has identified its police problems and decided what
solutions to pursue, an organizing strategy for securing the desired
reform must be developed.
In the 1960s and '70s, the most successful method of attacking police
abuse was the lawsuit. During the tenure of Chief Justice Earl Warren,
landmark Supreme Court decisions that imposed nationally uniform limits on
police behavior were handed down in the cases of Mapp v. Ohio, Escobedo
v. Illinois and Miranda v. Arizona. Respectively, those decisions
extended Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and
seizures to the states, established the Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer
during police interrogations and required the police to inform persons
taken into custody of their Fifth Amendment right against
Today, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is
repeatedly demonstrating its hostility to individual rights, as are many
lower federal courts, the majority of whose presiding judges were
appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. More and more,
therefore, the task of opposing police abuse falls not to lawyers, but to
the citizens in your community.
The following profiles of successful organizing strategies can guide your
community's attempts to effectively challenge police abuse.
STRATEGY #1: BUILD COALITIONS
PROFILE: The Indianapolis Law Enforcement and Community Relations Coalition
The year is 1984. Galvanized by a series of brutal and unjustified police
killings that have sparked tensions between the police department and the
African American community, 19 civil rights, religious, professional and
civic organizations form the Indianapolis Law Enforcement/Community
Relations Coalition. Coalition members include the Urban League, Baptist
Ministerial Alliance, Community Centers of Indianapolis, Hispano-American
Center, Indiana Council of Churches, Jewish Community Relations Council,
Mental Health Association, NAACP and the United Methodist Church.
The coalition, co-chaired by the directors of the Indiana Civil Liberties
Union and the Urban League of Greater Indianapolis, sets the establishment
of a civilian review board as its first priority. A board is established
Currently, the coalition is seeking to strengthen the board's authority
and functions. Coalition members are calling for removal of three police
representatives so that the board will be completely civilian and, thus,
Coalition members collaborate with police academy instructors on
sensitivity training, meeting with every class of recruits before the
recruits graduate and take on their first field assignments. The recruits
receive orientation around various policies and procedures that impact on
the community, such as the use of deadly force.
In Indianapolis today, the Law Enforcement/Community Relations Coalition
is regarded by the police, the public and the media as the city's
principal civilian watchdog organization. Key to the coalition's success
has been its broadbased character and commitment to participatory
STRATEGY #2: MONITOR THE POLICE
PROFILE: COPWATCH, Berkeley, California
COPWATCH is a community organization whose stated purpose is "to reduce
police harassment and brutality," and "to uphold Berkeley's tradition of
tolerance and diversity." Its main activities are monitoring police
conduct through personal observation, recording and publicizing incidents
of abuse and harassment, and working with Berkeley's civilian review board
-- the Police Review Commission.
COPWATCH sends teams of volunteers into the community on three-hour
shifts. Each team is equipped with a flashlight, tape recorder, camera,
"incident" forms (see sidebar) and COPWATCH Handbooks that describe the
organization's non-violent tactics, relevant laws, court decisions,
police policies and what citizens should do in an emergency. At the end
of a shift, the volunteers return their completed forms to the COPWATCH
office. If they have witnessed an harassment incident, they call one of
the organization's cooperating lawyers, who follows up on the incident.
COPWATCH holds weekly meetings, and its activists attend public meetings
of the Police Review Commission. It publishes a quarterly newsletter,
Copwatch Report, which features a "Cop Blotter" column that describes
examples of police misconduct "gleaned from COPWATCH incident reports."
Although the group's impact has not been studied, COPWATCH activists are
convinced that their monitoring activities deter and, thus, reduce
harassment and abuse.
SIDEBAR: [sample copwatch incident report form]
Date __________ Time __________ Place _________________________________
Officers (names & numbers) ______________________________________________
Police Car License No. __________________________________________________
Arrestee/Victim's Name __________________________________________________
Other Information _______________________________________________________
Suspected Charge ________________________________________________________
Witnesses (names & phone numbers) _______________________________________
Injuries? ______ If yes, describe _______________________________________
Photos or tapes? ___ Does arrestee need a lawyer? _______________________
Description of incident _________________________________________________
Name of Copwatcher ______________________________________________________
STRATEGY # 3: USE OPEN RECORDS LAWS
PROFILE: The Seattle Coalition on Government Spying
The year is 1976. During confirmation hearings for a new Seattle police
chief, it comes to light that the city's police department maintains
political intelligence files on citizens who are not suspected of any
criminal activity. Some time later, a local newspaper prints the names
of 150 individuals that were found in police files.
A group of citizens, concerned about this clear violation of First
Amendment and privacy rights, form the Coalition on Government Spying.
One of the coalition's first acts is to file suit under the Washington
public disclosure law, seeking access to the police department's
intelligence files (see sample Open Records statute in sidebar). Under
the law, the police can refuse to disclose the files only if
"nondisclosure is essential to effective law enforcement." Since the
files are purely political, the court orders full disclosure.
The coalition's charges of abuse turn out to be well-founded. Not only do
the files show that the police have engaged in unconstitutional
surveillance of political activists, but they are full of inaccurate,
misleading and damaging information.
The lawsuit and its revelations receive a lot of media attention, which
helps build strong public support for reform. The result: Seattle enacts
the first and only municipal ordinance in the country that restricts
SIDEBAR: OPEN RECORDS LAWS
Each of the 50 states has a freedom of information act or an open records
law. Virtually all such laws were enacted post-Watergate, in the
mid-1970's. Under these laws, community groups can request and obtain
access to police reports, investigations, policies and tape recordings
regarding a controversial incident, such as a beating, shooting, or false
arrest. If the police refuse to disclose information to representatives
of your community, that refusal in itself should become the focus of
organizing and public attention. Ultimately, your community can sue to
compel disclosure, unless the records you seek are specifically exempted.
FLORIDA FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT
General state policy on public records.
It is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal
records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection by any
(1) "Public records" means all documents, papers, letters, maps, books,
tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, or other material, regardless
of physical form or other characteristics, made or received pursuant to
law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official
business by any agency.
(2) "Agency" shall mean any state, county, district, authority or
municipal officer, department, division, board, bureau, commission, or
other separate unit of government...
Inspection and examination of records; exemptions.
(1) Every person who has custody of public records shall permit the
records to be inspected and examined by any person desiring to do so, at
reasonable times, under reasonable conditions...The custodian shall
furnish copies or certified copies of the records upon payment of fees...
(2) All public records which presently are provided by law to be
confidential or which are prohibited from being inspected by the public,
whether by general or special law, shall be exempt from the provisions of
STRATEGY #4: EDUCATE THE PUBLIC
PROFILE: Police Practices Project, ACLU of Northern California
The Police Practices Project conducts education programs to teach citizens
about their constitutional rights. One aspect of the police abuse
problem, the project believes, is that the police tend to abuse certain
people partly because they think these individuals don't know their
rights, or don't know how to assert their rights. The project also
believes that its programs have the added advantage of recruiting groups
and individuals to work in police reform campaigns.
The project, working with other groups, sponsors training programs for
homeless people, as well as for advocates and service providers for the
homeless. The training includes the distribution of copies of police
policies, information on homeless people's legal rights, suggestions on
how to observe and record police misconduct and presentations by members
of the local civilian review agency. The project created a videotape of
its training techniques for use by other groups outside the Bay Area.
The project also publishes wallet-size cards in English, Spanish and
Chinese that inform citizens about what to do or say in encounters with
the police. These cards have been widely distributed in the community.
(One card-holder reported that he pulled out his card when confronted by a
police officer, only to have the officer reach into his wallet and pull
out his own copy of the same card!)
The project believes that individual citizens and community groups become
informed about police policies just by participating in the preparation of
educational materials and training sessions. That participation also
fosters awareness about particular areas of police practice that need
reform. Most important, education empowers even the most disenfranchised
people and helps deter the police from treating them abusively.
SIDEBAR: Wallet Cards [sample cards: front]
Some Practical Suggestions About You and the Police
American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California
1663 Mission Street, #460
San Francisco, CA 94103
Your Rights and the Police
What you say to the police is always important. What you cay can be used
against you, and it can give the police an excuse to arrest you,
especially if you "bad mouth" a police officer.
You do not have to answer a police officer's questions, but you must show
your driver's license and registration when stopped in a car. In other
situations, you cannot legally be arrested for refusing to identify
yourself to a police officer.
You do not have to give your consent to any search of yourself, your car
or of your house. If you do consent to a search it can affect your rights
later in court. If the police say they have a search warrant, ask to see
Do not interfere with, or obstruct, the police -- you can be arrested for
If You Are Stopped for Questioning
1. It is not a crime to refuse to answer questions, although refusing to
answer can make the police suspicious about you. You cannot be arrested
merely for refusing to identify yourself on the street.
2. The police may "pat down" your clothing if they suspect a weapon to
check for concealed weapons. Do not physically resist, but make it clear
that you do consent to any further search.
3. Ask if you are under arrest. If you are, you have a right to know why.
4. Do not "bad mouth" the police officer or run away, even if you believe
what is happening is unreasonable. That could lead to your arrest.
If Your Are Stopped in Your Car
1. Show your driver's license and registration upon request. Your can in
certain cases be searched without a warrant so long as the police have
probable cause. To protect yourself later, you should make it clear that
you do not consent to a search.
2. If you are given a ticket, you should sign it, otherwise you can be
arrested. You can always fight the case in court later.
3. If you are suspected of drunken driving and refuse a blood, urine or
breath test, your driving license can be suspended.
If You Are Arrested or Taken to a Police Station
1. You have the right to remain silent and talk to a lawyer before you
talk to the police. Tell the police nothing except your name and address.
Do not give explanations, excuses or stories. You can make your defense
in court based on what you and your lawyer decide is best.
2. Ask to see a lawyer immediately. If you cannot pay for a lawyer, you
have a right to a free one, and you should ask the police how the lawyer
can be contacted. Do not talk without a lawyer.
3. Within three hours after you are arrested, or immediately after being
booked, you have the right to make two free complete phone calls in the
local dialing area. (1) to a lawyer, (2) a bail bondsman. . .
STRATEGY # 5: USE THE POLITICAL PROCESS TO WIN REFORMS
PROFILE: The New York Civil Liberties Union's Campaign for a "Real
Civilian Review Board"
The time is August 1988; the place, New York City. Manhattan's Lower East
Side neighborhood is rocked by one of the most serious outbreaks of police
violence in years. The violence occurs as the police, declaring a curfew,
begin to eject homeless people and their supporters from Tompkins Square
Park. Fifty-two people, most of them innocent bystanders, sustain serious
injuries at the hands of the police. Much of the violence is recorded on
video. Yet the officers who are guilty of misconduct go virtually
unpunished; only one receives more than a 30-day suspension from the
The city's Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) comes under heightened
scrutiny. Although it has existed since 1966, the CCRB has long been
criticized for its lack of independence and secretive proceedings. Half
of its 12 members are appointed by the mayor, the other half by the police
commissioner. Most of the CCRB's investigators are police officers.
In the wake of the Tompkins Square events, the New York Civil Liberties
Union (NYCLU) spearheads "A Campaign for a Real Civilian Review Board" and
organizes a coalition of civil rights organizations to back it up. The
goal of the campaign is the establishment of a new, all-civilian CCRB
that will be totally independent of the police department.
During 1991, the campaign calls on the city's community boards to pass
resolutions in support of "a real CCRB." (The community boards are
elected bodies that have advisory jurisdiction over a variety of local
matters, such as zoning and land use). Campaign spokespeople debate
police department representatives before some 30 community boards
throughout the city, and 19 boards pass resolutions calling for revisions
of the present system (see sample resolution in sidebar). Each board that
passes a resolution becomes a member of the campaign coalition. Coalition
members set up tables at street fairs and other community events to
collect signatures on petitions for "a real CCRB." More than 1,000
signatures are collected.
The NYCLU, after garnering this broad support develops legislation for
submission to the City Council. The bill is endorsed by 14 Council
members. At this writing, the bill has yet to be debated, but the cause
of true civilian review in New York City has already been advanced.
SIDEBAR: Resolution on The Civilian Complaint Review Board of New York City
Adopted by Community Board #9, Serving Hamilton Heights/Manhattanville &
Morningside Heights New York City
Whereas, many New Yorkers are concerned about the independence and
effectiveness of the present Civilian Complaint Review Board; and
Whereas, with the proposed hiring of 9,000 new police officers,
unfortunately, there may be a wider possibility of alleged police abuse;
Whereas, if alleged police abuse has been charged, New Yorkers should have
an effective government review agency that will render fair and full
investigation and hearing of their allegations without pressure from the
Police Department now, therefore, be it
Resolved, that the new board should have investigators and board members
that are civilians with no allegiances to the Police Department and should
have the power to subpoena witnesses to insure cooperation from the police
officers or other concerned individuals. It should hold regular public
hearings and maintain procedural safeguards to protect the rights of
civilians and police officers. It should have expanded jurisdiction that
includes all police and peace officers employed by the City and quasi-city
agencies; and in adopting this resolution we are following the lead of
Community Boards #4, #11, and #12.
STRATEGY #6: LOBBY FOR STATE LEGISLATION
PROFILE: The ACLU of California's Legislative Approach to Police Misconduct
Frustrated by inaction on the part of Los Angeles police officials, the
ACLU's affiliates in Southern California, Northern California and San
Diego are building a campaign for the passage of state legislation to deal
with the problem of police abuse. The affiliates are developing
legislation that would:
* establish an Office of the Special Police Prosecutor to prosecute cases
of police abuse. Independent prosecutors are needed because conventional
city and county prosecutors are reluctant to bring charges against the
same police officers they rely on for evidence in other criminal cases;
* establish state-mandated civilian police review boards for local police;
* break the "code of silence" by making it a crime for a police officer to
fail to report criminal wrongdoing by another officer. This provision
would also protect a reporting officer from retaliation;
* require statewide data collection on police abuse and misconduct;
* restrict the use of force and "pain compliance" techniques;
* break down the wall of secrecy that shields complaints of police
misconduct and most complaint investigative processes from public scrutiny
Meanwhile, for the last several years ACLU lobbyists have waged a largely
successful battle against a flood of dangerous bills introduced into the
California Legislature by police lobbyists. In the process, the ACLU has
learned that an informed presence in state legislatures is essential to
counteracting well-funded and influential police lobbies that sometimes
oppose or undercut reform efforts.
A FINAL WORD
Keep your eye on the big picture: On the one hand, each individual reform
is only one step on a long road to correcting the deeply entrenched
problem of police misconduct; on the other hand, important and genuine
reforms *can* be won.
A well-organized, focused campaign against police abuse can draw broad
community support. The key is to transform that support into realistic
demands, and develop strategies that turn those demands into concrete
We hope the information and advice contained in this manual inspires and
equips your community to effectively tackle the problem of police
misconduct from the grass roots up. Reform of police practices is in the
best interests of every American, including the men and women in blue.
You have our best wishes for success. Keep in touch.
American Civil Liberties Union. On The Line: Police Brutality and its
Remedies. New York. April 1991.<> The ACLU's response to the Rodney King
beating. Case studies and recommendations for local and federal remedies.
ACLU of Washington. Coalition on Government Spying: Seattle's
Surveillance Ordinance. March 1980.<> Describes events leading up to
city's adoption of law that limits police surveillance of citizens.
American Friends Service Committee. The Police Threat to Political
Liberty. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1979.<> Comprehensive report on
police spying, with separate chapters on Seattle, Los Angeles,
Philadelphia, Baltimore and Jackson, Mississippi.
Bouza, Anthony. The Police Mystique: An Insider's Look at Cops, Crime and
the Criminal Justice System. New York. Plenum Press. 1990.<> The
author, retired police chief of Minneapolis and long considered an
innovative thinker, analyzes what's wrong with American policing.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. Criminal Victimization in the United
States, 1989. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C. 1991.<>
National crime survey published annually by U.S. Department of Justice.
Chevigny, Paul. Cops and Rebels: A Study Of Provocation. Pantheon. New
York. 1972.<> Case study of police infiltration and disruption of the
Black Panther Party in New York City.
Chevigny, Paul. Police Brutality in the United States: A Policy Statement
on the Need for Federal Oversight. Human Rights Watch. New York.
1991.<> Review of potential federal remedies for police misconduct.
Published in response to the Rodney King incident.
Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Standards for
Law Enforcement Agencies.<> These official for police departments are the
bare minimum. Revised regularly.
Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. Senate. Freedom of Information: A
Compilation of State Laws. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington,
D.C. 1978.<> Comprehensive survey of state open records laws.
Compendium of International Civilian Oversight Agencies. International
Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Evanston,
Illinois. 1990.<> Summaries and excerpts of materials on selected
civilian review systems. Includes chart that compares systems.
COPWATCH Report. 2022 Blake Street, Berkeley, CA 94704.<> Quarterly
newsletter published by community-based, volunteer organization that
monitors police activity.
Couper, David C. How To Rate Your Local Police. Police Executive
Research Forum, 1983.<> Brochure that examines the issues of leadership,
policy and organizational characteristics of police agencies. Useful
because it goes beyond such traditional methods of evaluating police
departments as the crime rate, number of arrests, clearance rate, ratio of
officers to citizens and response time.
Donner, Frank. Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression
in Urban America. University of California Press. Berkeley. 1990.<>
Epic study of police role in suppressing grass roots social protest.
Fyfe, James J. "Administrative Interventions on Police Shooting
Discretion: An Empirical Examination." Journal of Criminal Justice #7
(Winter 1979). pp. 309-323.<> The first and still the most important
study of the impact of restrictive shooting policies on police use of
Geller, William A. "Deadly Force: What We Know." Journal of Police
Science and Administration; Volume 10 (1982); pp. 151-177.<> An important,
very informative work about the use of deadly force by police officers.
Goldman, Roger and Steven Puro. "Decertification of Police: An
Alternative to Traditional Remedies for Police Misconduct." Hastings
Constitutional Law Quarterly #15 (Fall 1987). pp. 45-80.<> The authors,
based in St. Louis, are the nation's leading experts on police
Goldstein, Herman. Problem-Oriented Policing. McGraw-Hill. New York.
1990. The most important new concept in policing discussed by one of its
Matulia, Kenneth J. A Balance of Forces: Model Deadly Force Policy and
Procedure. Second edition. International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Gaithersburg, Maryland. 1985.<> Presents comparative data on use of deadly
Minneapolis Police Civilian Review Working Committee. A Model for
Civilian Review of Police Conduct in Minneapolis. Minneapolis, Minnesota.
September 1989.<> Report to Mayor and City Council by special committee
formed to propose specific structure for a new civilian review system.
Analysis and evaluation of competing arguments regarding authority and
role of civilian review.
New York Civil Liberties Union. Police Abuse: The Need for Civilian
Investigation and Oversight. New York. 1990.<> NYCLU's report and
recommendations following the local Civilian Complaint Review Board's
white-wash of a police riot that took place in Tompkins Square Park, in
downtown New York City.
Pate, Anthony and Edwin E. Hamilton. The Big Six: Policing America's
Largest Cities. Police Foundation, 1991.<> Impressive report on the
police departments of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Houston.
Uses statistical analysis to compare departments' performance in a many
areas -- firearm discharges; citizen complaints; race, gender and other
characteristics of personnel; expenditures per citizen; recruitment,
selection and entry requirements; salaries and benefits.
Reiss, Albert J. The Police and the Public. Yale University Press. New
Haven, Connecticut. 1971.<> The most comprehensive sociological study of
routine police work, based on direct observations.
Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department.
Los Angeles. July 1991.<> Official report of the civilian commission
established to investigate the LAPD following the Rodney King beating in
March 1991. Includes recommendations for L.A. police reforms.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Public Complaints Commission. Federal and
Provincial Police Oversight Legislation: A Comparison of Statutory
Provisions. Ottawa, Canada. 1991.<> Extensive comparison charts on
legislation that provides for Canadian civilian review systems. Updated
Sherman, Lawrence W. and Ellen G. Gohn. Citizens Killed By Big City
Police, 1970-1984. Crime Control Institute. Washington, D.C. 1986.<>
Presents comparative data on police use of deadly force.
Sherman, Lawrence W. and Barry Glick. The Quality of Police Arrest
Statistics. The Police Foundation. Washington, D.C. 1984.<> Comparison
study of how different police departments record arrests, and the impact
different practices have on arrest statistics.
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Who Is Guarding the Guardians: A Report
on Police Practices. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C.
1981.<> A comprehensive review of police misconduct with the most complete
set of recommendations to be found anywhere. Based on Civil Rights
Commission hearings on the Philadelphia and Houston police departments.
Vaughn, Jerald. How To Rate Your Police Chief. Police Executive Research
Foundation, 1989.<> Brochure written by an ex-police chief that explains
how citizens can accurately evaluate the performance of their chief law
enforcement executive. Also details pitfalls to be avoided when making
Walker, Samuel and Vic Bumphus. Civilian Review of the Police: A National
Survey of the 50 Largest Cities. University of Nebraska at Omaha. Omaha,
Nebraska. 1991.<> Survey of civilian review agencies in the 50 largest
cities. Includes a classification system that measures the extent of
civilian involvement in the review process.
American Friends Service Committee
Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project
3515 Allen Parkway
Houston, TX 77019
Tel: (713) 524-5428
Monitors abuses by Immigration and Naturalization Service, Border Patrol
and other agencies. Model computerized tracking program for incidents of
Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (COALEA)
4242-B Chain Bridge Road
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel: (703) 352-4225
Private accrediting board for law enforcement agencies. Organized and
supported by law enforcement agencies. Publishes a set of accreditation
Community United Against Violence (CUAV)
514 Castro Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
Tel: (415) 864-3112
Lesbian/gay rights advocacy organization. Extensive experience conducting
law enforcement sensitivity training on lesbian/gay issues.
2022 Blake Street
Berkeley, CA 94704
Tel: (510) 548-0425
Community-based volunteer organization which monitors police activity in
an effort to preserve the rights of all citizens, including the homeless,
to fair treatment under the law.
International Association For Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (IACOLE)
1204 Wesley Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
Tel: (312) 353-4391
Professional association of persons involved in civilian review of the
police. Membership consists primarily of staff members of local civilian
review agencies. Annual meeting. Newsletter. Periodically publishes a
compendium of civilian review agencies.
International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
13 Firstfield Road
P.O. Box 6010
Gaithersburg, MD 20878
Primary professional association for chiefs of police. Traditionally
dominated by chiefs from small town police departments.
International Union of Police Associations (IUPA)
1016 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Tel: (703) 549-7473
National federation of local police unions. Does not represent all local
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
4805 Mt. Hope Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215
Tel: (301) 358-8900
Civil rights organization with chapters across the country. Promotes
civil rights through litigation, lobbying and community organizing.
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
1110 Vermont Avenue, N.W., Suite 1150
Washington, D.C. 20005
Tel. (202) 872-8688
Develops public policy recommendations on matters pertaining to the
criminal justice system and lobbies Congress.
National Black Police Association (NBPA)
3251 Mt. Pleasant St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20010
Tel: (202) 986-2070
Association of Black police officers. Resource for community groups
working on police abuse issues. Speakers. Brochure on how to handle
encounters with police, entitled,"What To Do When Stopped by the Police."
National Coalition for Police Accountability (NCPA)
59 E. Van Buren, Suite 2418
Chicago, IL 60603
Tel: (312) 663-5392.
New coalition of groups working on police abuse issues. Members include
legal, advocacy, victims, minority police and religious organizations.
Plans for annual conference, newsletter and other forms of networking.
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1734 14th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009
Tel: (202) 332-6483
Civil rights organization that promotes freedom and equality for lesbians
and gay men. Its Anti-Violence Project publishes an annual report on
"Anti-Gay/Lesbian Violence, Victimization & Defamation" and a pamphlet,
"Dealing With Violence: A Guide for Gay and Lesbian People."
National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE)
908 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20003
Tel: (202) 546-8811
Non-profit organization of professional law enforcement officials
dedicated to improving the quality of police services for all citizens.
National Urban League
500 E. 62nd Street
New York, NY 10021
Tel: (212) 310-9000
Civil rights organization that focuses on the economic condition and
empowerment of the African American community.
Police Executive Research Forum (PERF)
2300 M Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20037
Tel: (202) 466-7820
Professional association of police chiefs from the big cities in the
United States. Conducts research and management consulting. Issues
position papers and policy statements on important issues in policing.
1001 22nd St., N.W., Suite 200
Washington, D.C. 20037
Tel: (202) 833-1460
Non-profit consulting group, primarily engaged in research and
demonstration projects on innovative police programs. Involved in some of
the most important research projects in policing since the 1970s.
611 S. Catalina, Suite 409
Los Angeles, CA 90005
Tel: (213) 387-3325
Model legal referral program for victims of police abuse. Some training
for police abuse litigators. Data base on incidents of abuse in Southern
[A Directory of ACLU Affiliate offices is included in the print version of
this report. An up-to-date list of ACLU affiliates is available via the
ACLU Free Reading Room, gopher://aclu.org:6601
ACLU Free Reading Room | A publications and information resource of the
gopher://aclu.org:6601 | American Civil Liberties Union National Office
mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org | "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"