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NYPD Blues

POLICE BRUTALITY An Anthology Edited by Jill Nelson; W.W. Norton: 320 pp., $24.95

May 28, 2000|MILES CORWIN | Miles Corwin is the author of "The Killing Season: A Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division" and, most recently, "And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City High School Students." He is a Times staff writer

During the mid-1990s, the New York City Police Department was lionized throughout the country for its innovative crime-fighting tactics and for dramatically reducing crime in the city. Politicians and police officials scrambled to claim credit. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani parlayed the crime drop into a brief bid for the U.S. Senate. His first police commissioner, William Bratton, became the media's favorite police pundit and published an autobiography delineating his crime-fighting methods.

A key NYPD strategy incorporated hard-charging, militaristic methods that were employed primarily in minority communities. Officials created a special unit to "stop and frisk" suspects, confiscate guns and drugs and make arrests. Critics, however, contended that the vast majority of those stopped were targeted along racial lines and that only a small percentage of the detainees were found with guns or drugs. The practice has created tremendous enmity between minority residents and police, and the more humanistic community-based policing was derided by Giuliani as social work.

While many New Yorkers, astonished by the sudden and steep drop in crime, embraced the department's methods, law enforcement experts familiar with the history of the LAPD predicted grave problems. Contrary to the claims of some police officials, there was nothing innovative about this approach, which was pioneered in the 1950s by LAPD Chief William H. Parker, who called it "proactive policing." Though Parker was revered in the city by some, he was reviled in black and Latino neighborhoods. Daryl Gates, his successor, perpetuated the proactive approach, which many LAPD critics believe culminated in the Rodney King beating and the 1992 riots, just as Parker's approach led inexorably to the Watts riots in 1965.

Predictions that the NYPD would soon suffer the same fate as Los Angeles police proved particularly prescient. Acclaim for the NYPD dissolved into acrimony in the wake of controversial shootings and excessive force claims, which sound eerily similar to the criticism the LAPD endured during the last few decades. Four unarmed black men have been shot on the street by New York City officers in a little more than a year, and complaints against the force have skyrocketed. The department has been repeatedly battered by the media and activist organizations after a number of egregious incidents, including the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was killed in the vestibule of his apartment building by four white plainclothes officers, and the torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in a police precinct.

Though the LAPD has been reproved during the last few decades for treating brutal cops with leniency, the department assiduously rooted out officers who stole money, used drugs or took bribes. As a result, since World War II, the LAPD was not beset by the corruption scandals that have plagued many Eastern cities. That is why the Rampart scandal, the worst police scandal in the city's history, has been so shocking to residents and law enforcement experts.

"Police Brutality," Jill Nelson's collection of a dozen incisive essays, provides both a historical and topical perspective on unjustified shootings, excessive force, police misconduct, the war on drugs and a host of other law enforcement excesses from around the country that are in the news today. Although the essays were written before Rampart, the book's insights provide readers with a perspective on how a scandal of this magnitude could be unleashed.

All of the essays were written by black contributors who focus primarily on black communities. The strength of the book is how the contributors, who describe events through the prism of their own experiences on the streets of their own neighborhoods, portray the vast chasm of perception between minorities and whites. When a patrol car cruises down a street in a white neighborhood, most residents are reassured and feel a modicum of safety and security. But when police arrive in black neighborhoods, one essayist asserts, the casual can easily become catastrophic.

Whites cannot imagine how afraid black people are of the police, Katheryn Russell writes in a chapter entitled "The Politics of Police Brutality." Because police brutality has not yet "crossed over," has not yet become an issue that affects whites, it can easily be ignored. "The fact that police brutality is represented as 'black' has relegated it to the bottom tier of social problems," writes Russell, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Maryland. "Whether or not an issue is ghettoized has everything to do with how it is perceived."

In some essays, however, the focus is too narrow and the agenda too specific. Although one of the pieces was written by a retired detective, the cops are usually presented as a nebulous, malevolent force, lacking any nuance or insight that could give readers a better understanding of a culture than can engender brutality.

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