Elite cops under fire for excessive force

Shooting of black man in New York intensifies debate over specialpolice units nationwide.

A year ago, the American Civil Liberties Union printed a palm card detailing what to do if you're stopped by the police. The cards were met with a big yawn from the public.

Today, the New York chapter of the ACLU is hard pressed to keep them in supply. "We're running them off daily," says Norman Siegel, executive director here.

The change is illustrative of a fear that is springing up in the minority community over aggressive police tactics.

Across the country, many cities now operate special police units designed to curb street crime. While authorities believe they have been instrumental in reducing urban violence, civil rights groups argue their actions are often racially motivated - and trample on individual liberties.

In New York, minority fears over police tactics were underscored by the recent shooting of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, who was gunned down by members of New York's Special Crime Unit in a hail of 41 bullets. Now the shooting of the unarmed man is focusing a new spotlight on the tactics of elite police units nationwide.

"The problem is that they are targeted at people of color," says Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

"Despite the fact they reduce crime, it seems to me that aggressive patrols can become too aggressive," says Mary Powers, executive director of the Chicago-based National Coalition on Police Accountability.

Almost every city has a similar group designed to pull guns off the streets, use decoys to catch criminals, and operate in high-crime neighborhoods. They have a certain esprit de corps: in Hollywood, Fla., they're called the "Raiders." In Charleston, W.Va., they're the "Four Horsemen." New York's unit brags, "We own the night."

The groups have their own tactics. They wear civilian clothes, drive unmarked cars, and frequently stop and frisk teenage blacks. Minority members driving late model cars are routinely stopped, critics say. Bogus arrests - such as loitering charges for people walking down the street - are seen as being so common that young Latino and black males carry pay stubs with them to prove they have employment.

Although there are no national statistics on special crime units, the FBI is investigating several of them over charges of racial bias. The agency is involved in the New York shooting and recently completed an investigation of the special crime unit in Charleston, W. Va.

The units also are attracting lawsuits. In Los Angeles, there are scores of legal complaints that accuse the LAPD's Special Investigation Section - dubbed by community activists the death squad - of reckless behavior. The SIS has had more than 50 gun battles and killed at least 34 suspects over the years. In Hollywood, Fla., a federal jury recently awarded $750,000 to a man after determining that two members of the street crimes unit arrested him without cause in 1996.

But the crime units also get results. In New York, the elite corps is only 4 to 5 percent of the force but makes 18 percent of the arrests. They are responsible for 40 percent of the guns pulled off the streets.

WITHIN the past two years, the city has doubled the size of the unit. "They are worthwhile and have proven themselves and operate in a very dangerous environment," says Bob Louden, a former New York policeman and now head of the Criminal Justice Center at John Jay College here.

There is no question that working in the units is dangerous. One policewoman, who worked as a decoy in New York, was called "muggable Mary" for the hundreds of times she was victimized in the line of duty. The mortality rate among these officers is also high. "You can't do the job more than a few years," says James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University.

Civil libertarians don't dispute the need for aggressive police work. "We want the police to go after the bad guys and use force when needed," says William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, USA. He believes 95 percent of the police do a respectable job. "But I think a certain percentage are either out of control or inadequately trained or supervised."

The biggest complaint is the way special unit officers work in minority communities. In Charleston, for example, prosecutor Bill Forbes recently wrote that some of the incidents involved the "most invidious racial discrimination that I have seen during my 10 years as prosecuting attorney."

Mr. Forbes detailed an incident where the special crime unit arrested a man for drug dealing. The cops' reason for stopping him: "three black guys in a Lexus."

Next month, US Department of Justice lawyers plan to visit Charleston, says Hiliary Chiz, head of the ACLU of West Virginia. She calls the problem "pervasive."

Police Chief Jerry Riffe disagrees, noting there have been no injuries so far and the unit has taken hundreds of guns off the streets. "If it's true, what the DA [district attorney] says, I want to stop it," he says. "But I don't believe it: They should get some kind of reward instead."

One of the problems, say critics, is that many of the units are composed of too many white officers. In New York, for example, minority members of the special unit represent only 10 percent of the group compared to 30 percent of the entire police force.

The men who shot Mr. Diallo were all white and were on the lookout for a serial rapist who looked somewhat like the immigrant from Guinea. It's still not clear what happened that night because the district attorney has yet to interview the officers involved in the incident.

If the Diallo incident was unique, Mr. Siegel says it would not stir up so much emotion. But he notes that the special crime unit has stopped and frisked 45,000 individuals in making 10,000 arrests. "So 78 percent of the time, they make no arrests," he says. That's why the ACLU is giving out its cards on what to do when people are stopped by the police.

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