Television shows celebrate New York's "finest," its police officers. The city's former police commissioner recently gazed out from the cover of Time magazine. Cops from around the world visit NYPD's "war room" to learn how to crack down on criminals. But now the department is under a different kind of spotlight - accused of police brutality.
The nation's largest police force, the NYPD, joins the ranks of law-enforcement organizations across the country that have been accused of using "choke holds" on suspects, beating unarmed citizens, or shooting first and asking questions later.
It's a nagging national problem that even police officials admit is difficult to stop when individual cops, armed with guns, believe their badges give them the right to pummel people. Misuse of police power has been alleged, for example, in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.
"There are instances when police officers use more force than necessary to consummate the arrest," says David Walchak, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in Washington.
But Mr. Walchak says he believes use of excess force by officers has dropped in the US because of better training and high selection standards. The IACP is engaged in a national study to find out more about the extent and nature of police brutality.
In New York, the issue has surfaced in recent weeks as police conduct has been called into question. On June 3, two officers are accused of slamming a handcuffed Hispanic man face-first onto the sidewalk. The man needed medical help afterward.
Police are also investigating a recent incident in which officers killed a man driving a car they believed had been stolen by an armed man. The officers shot the driver when they saw him reach under his seat. No gun was found.
And, last month, a New York City police detective was arrested after an African-American man was beaten into a coma outside a club in Westhampton on Long Island. The detective is alleged to have pulled his gun to prevent on-lookers from coming to the aid of the injured man.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International, a global human rights organization, issued a report, charging a pattern of NYPD abuse of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians over several years. "Reports of police brutality, shootings, and deaths at the hands of the police have risen significantly in recent years and reached an extremely worrying level," says David Marshall, a lawyer and co-author of the Amnesty report.
The charges of brutality come at a time when the police department is riding high. In recent weeks it has solved major crimes, including the brutal beating of a woman in Central Park and the slayings of three people by a serial killer in the early 1990s.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has taken credit for the department's success at lowering the crime rate, calls the Amnesty allegations more hype than fact. On Wednesday, however, the mayor's new police commissioner, Howard Safir, unveiled a new policy strategy called "CPR" - for courtesy, professionalism, and respect. Although Mr. Safir says most police don't abuse citizens, he adds that CPR "is something you have to continually emphasize when you have people with guns and badges and they have authority and they have power."
Amnesty welcomes the training. But it also says the city needs to take additional steps, such as setting up an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality, hiring more ethnic minorities, and supporting an independent Civilian Complaint Review Board. Mayor Giuliani has blocked City Council attempts to make the CCRB fully independent.
The NYPD maintains that any brutality is tiny compared with the number of civilian contacts it makes each year. Safir says 99 percent of the city's police are courteous when dealing with the public. But, he adds, "Even 1 percent is not acceptable. We are going to deal with those officers who are disrespectful."
To help, the NYPD has formed an advisory board of community activists and high-profile citizens. "The issue is real and perceived, and we have to get to the bottom of that," says John Walcott, co-chair of the advisory group.