Policing the Police

New York, it's been said, has found a crime-fighting strategy that works. Over the past five years, crime in New York, and in many other cities, has plummeted. During former Police Commissioner William Bratton's three years in office, for example, homicides in New York were down 40 percent. Other police departments in other cities took note.

Mr. Bratton, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and current Commissioner Howard Safir have been determined to show that criminal behavior won't be tolerated. Part of that strategy is tougher enforcement. But, despite their success (or, some say, because of it), there have been signs of serious trouble - signs that should not have been ignored.

Last summer Amnesty International released a report saying incidents of brutality, shooting, and deaths at the hands of New York City police had "reached an extremely worrying level." Yet Mayor Giuliani, in particular, was decidedly not worried. At the time, he dismissed the report as "anecdotal" and outdated.

But now Mr. Giuliani is reconsidering those findings. Recently, four police officers from the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn were charged with beating and torturing a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima. US Attorney Zachary Carter, who is investigating the incident, accurately called it "an act of almost incomprehensible depravity."

Mr. Carter's task is to find out how widespread the problem of police brutality is - whether, as he says, there's evidence of a broader pattern of abuse and tolerance of it. Other cities have had to do the same. Earlier this year, the Justice Department completed an investigation of misconduct by Pittsburgh's police force. Misuse of police power also has been alleged in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and New Orleans.

The next task is to find solutions. Just as leaders in New York have made it clear that crime won't be tolerated in the city, leaders in the precincts must make clear what won't be tolerated in the department. While such leadership is crucial, officers shouldn't be the only ones policing other officers. As Amnesty International suggested, New York and other cities should give independent review boards more authority than most now have.

Hiring more ethnic minorities also can help. In reaction to the allegations in the Brooklyn precinct, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said the NYPD needs more African-Americans, women, Hispanics, and Asians. "That's what the city is," Mr. Cuomo said. "That's what the police force should be." He has a point. But equally important is a code of respect and public service that excludes the use of excessive violence, whatever the officer's, or the suspect's, ethnicity.

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