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Watching the Detectives

By Lora J. Mackel
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
March 1, 2000
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Lora J. Mackel

In recent days, a number of scandals involving police brutality have tested the nation's conscience. In one, a LAPD officer caught stealing cocaine from an evidence locker revealed a police conspiracy in the department that will have multi-million dollar consequences. In another, four NYPD officers were acquitted of the murder of 22-year-old Amado Diallo, an unarmed man whom they shot to death 41 times. Because of these cases, police departments all over the country have the added burden of earning back the trust of an increasingly weary public. The only way that the police everywhere can earn back their good names is to open up their departments to more civilian oversight.

To fix the problem of corruption, society must first look at how corruption is allowed to exist. It exists because most police departments give their officers tremendous power and have few supervisors. The supervisors that do exist are too few in number and are all within the department. The police who watch over their own divisions are under pressure from both cops and police brass, so not much gets done by them. Even when internal reviews are conducted, policemen are not responsible to the public, but rather to their departments. This creates an ideal environment for corruption and misuse of power.

Additionally, an increasing number of cops are seeing themselves as urban warriors instead of defenders of the peace. This was never more evident than in the reaction of the four police men in New York who shot an unarmed man forty one times. These men's defense claimed that they were only reacting in the normal fashion to a man sitting on a stoop. This only proves how militant the police have become. Their attitude only reinforces the real ideological rift between the public and police. The public wants to be safe, while the police seem to be over zealously protecting public from itself.

It also proves how out of touch some police are with the communities they serve. It is no accident that the recent victims of police misconduct are people in the minority. In many cities, white cops make up the majority of police departments. This, too, breeds an ideal ground for police corruption in the ugly forms of both latent and subtle racism. Cops who work certain beats in cities, because of their limited contact with and lack of connection to the communities they are charged with defending, fail to realize that criminal behavior cannot be tied to race.

To be fair to police officers every where, it must be said that for every bad cop there are thousands of good ones. However, even good cops could benefit from a change in police department structure. To earn back the trust of the public, police departments should do everything in their power to become members of the communities they serve. After all the mistrust, this shift will not come easily for either side, but it will build a safer society if people feel as though they can trust the cops who are there to protect and uphold the law.

Another way police departments could repair their tarnished images would be to form independent task forces to monitor police departments. The task forces would conduct reviews, and because they would not be on police payroll, their first priority would be to the public and not the department. This system would reward the good behavior of decent cops and weed out those who were not desirable.

Police departments would also look less suspicious in the public eye if they opened up their departments to review when matters of corruption were raised. Even now, the LAPD is saying that its own department is enough to handle the investigation of the law enforcement scandal. Departments who truly have nothing to hide could only benefit from the disclosure of information. Police departments must realize that they are funded through tax money and are directly accountable to the public.

Police departments over the whole country have everything to gain and nothing to lose by opening up their departments. However they do that, they must begin to repair the breech of trust between the public and the police. If they do not, the lives of officers and civilians everywhere will continue to clash, and police will not be safe nor trusted.

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