Police and minorities: tragedy and reform

The tragic violence and looting in Miami in which at least nine persons lost their lives points once again to the lingering perception among blacks and other minorities in many US cities that their repeated cries of police brutality are being ignored. In Miami as in other large metropolitan areas minorities have long complained of unfair and harsh treatment at the hands of law enforcement officers. This weekend the acquittal by an all-white jury of four white former police officers charged with the beating death of a black insurance man was the spark that touched off the simmering frustrations in Miami's rather small black community (about 12 percent of the city's population).

A peaceful demonstration suddenly turned into a senseless mob. Whether or not police brutality was proved in this particular case is not the point -- although the Justice Department has properly decided to conduct a probe for possible civil rights violations. A bigger tragedy for society is the deep-seated distrust of public authority -- the lack of confidence among minorities that they can obtain justice in the courts, that the criminal justice system will treat them humanely and fairly -- that such mob action reflects.

The fact is that numerous city police departments, under prodding by the Justice Department and the US Civil Rights Commission, have taken steps to reduce police brutality. Just last month, for instance, the Justice Department signed an agreement with the city of Memphis under which the poplice department pledged strict adherence to a new policy limiting the use of force and firearms. The Memphis police force also agreed to thoroughly investigate instances of alleged police misconduct.

Philadelphia provides another example of law enforcement officials turning from a policy widely viewed as one of protecting police officers, no matter what , to one of publicly airing complaints and investigating alleged police abuses. Under new leadership since Mayor William Green took office in January, following eight years of alleged police abuses under former Mayor Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia's police department also has adopted guidelines on use of deadly force. One positive sign of the changed attitude was an immediate 50 percent drop in the number of police abuse complaints.

Under Attorney Generalk Civiletti the Justice Department has stepped up efforts to investigate police abuse complaints in major cities and to curb the discriminatory treatment of minorities by local law enforcement agencies. The stress in the department's Community Relations Service is on opening communications between the police and minorities, on showing blacks, Hispanics, and others that "the system" does work for them -- not against them. Obviously, such attitudes need greater cultivation in Miami.

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