Police in the Docket

From New York to Los Angeles, recent misdeeds by police have put a searchlight on new, aggressive tactics to reduce crime.

In Los Angeles, some 70 antigang officers are being investigated in connection with the planting of evidence, unjustified shootings, and false arrests. Already, 40 criminal convictions have been reversed, with hundreds more possibly being overturned soon.

Many officers in the LAPD may have thought they were doing society's bidding by cracking down on any suspicious people who fit the stereotypes of a criminal.

In New York last Friday, a jury handed down a verdict in the shooting death of a black immigrant, Amadou Diallo, by four white policemen. While the officers were acquitted, the case nonetheless raises concerns about how special anticrime units are being trained.

Obviously, not very well. New York's law-and-order mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, admits that police need to develop more cultural sensitivity toward minorities. "We probably don't always do the best job of training everyone," he said.

For minorities who often fear the police more than they do criminals, the Diallo verdict - while perhaps logical and by the book - wasn't enough. They're outraged that the law would acquit police officers who too quickly assumed that a black man pulling something out of his pocket was reaching for a gun. (Diallo was actually pulling out his wallet.)

The jury (which included four blacks) said the police justifiably feared for their lives in firing 41 shots at an innocent man.

Fear vs. fear: That's the lesson from the Diallo tragedy. Too many minorities fear police who act on prejudice, while many police fear any black or Hispanic who acts suspiciously.

That's not a tension many cities are ready to accept. In Boston and San Diego, for instance, police are working well with community and religious leaders to overcome a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. Police, like other people when faced with a threat, must apply the Golden Rule: How can I can treat others in a way that I want to be treated.

Training police to both take on more risk and to be more culturally aware takes resources and time.

Police need to be more collaborative with the communities they protect by tackling the basic causes of crime, from broken windows to broken families.

Police are trained to be suspicious. But suspicion can easily become prejudice and paranoia if it relies on clues based on stereotypes. Understanding a community can reduce those stereotypes while also reducing crime.

Too often, the question of defining the limits of police behavior is left to the Supreme Court or police regulators. But citizens and communities' leaders, too, also ought to help police to avoid unjust behavior.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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