Police Brutality in the City of Angels

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I am not a police officer. I thought this might be useful information for you to know because of my stance regarding police brutality. I contend that the police are often accused of police brutality unjustly. Furthermore, I feel that police officers are themselves victimized by self-serving media outlets, in their quest for viewers and higher ratings. Showing a fifteen second clip of a "suspect" being beaten often stirs up controversy, which in turn leads to higher viewership, but is it unbiased news reporting? I am not naïve enough to believe that news reporting is totally altruistic. It is a business, and like all other businesses, it is in business to make money. So is calling a beating by police officers "police brutality" a ploy to make money or is it done to call attention to a wrongdoing in society? To answer this question we must first ask, what is police brutality?

There are few things in modern day America that riles people's emotions quite like the topic of police brutality. This is a matter that consistently pokes its head into the news time and time again. Depending on their position on this matter, people are able to see two completely different versions of the same incident. Why is there such disparity in regard to police brutality? I think that part of the problem is because it is so difficult to define.

Let's look at the academic definition of "police brutality". According to "Encyclopedia.com", police brutality is, "the use of any force exceeding that reasonably necessary to accomplish a lawful police purpose". This seems simple enough; it is a clear concise definition. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. It is when we try to apply this definition to an incident that we run into trouble. Because every incident is so vastly different, we have trouble applying such a concise definition to every suspected case of police brutality. What criteria should be used when we are trying to define police brutality? Who gets to define what "reasonably necessary" is? Should it not be the decision of the police officers? After all, they are the people that are risking their lives to protect the general public.

Some people view any incident of force as another example of the police routinely and systematically victimizing and using excessive force against people of colour or against people that live in poverty stricken areas. Others see it as a reasonable use of force to detain a suspected criminal. It is difficult to get the people that live in these two camps to see eye to eye. According to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), Hispanics are almost twice as likely to be involved in cases of use of force than Caucasian people and African Americans are almost twice as likely as Hispanics to be involved in cases where force is used. This does not necessarily mean cases of excessive force, just force. This is why certain racial groups feel targeted.

When we see a short video clip on television showing what appears to be police brutality, the lack of context really changes the viewer's perception of the overall situation. What led up to the incident? Was there a reason to believe the suspect was armed and dangerous? Was the public still in danger at the moment of confrontation? It is a complex issue that can't be analyzed by watching a short clip and quickly making a determination of guilt or innocence, but often times, this is exactly how the media and civil rights groups try the case in the public domain. Civil rights groups use these edited clips to support their claims of abuse and to inflame passion. The general public, which includes you and me and media outlets and civil rights groups, are generally unqualified to make claims regarding police brutality because we don't have all the facts and we don't have police training. Having said that, I am also not naïve enough to believe that there are not any cases of police brutality, rather, we cannot rush judgment and need to let the proper authorities investigate and decide the case before we hit the streets in protest.

Let's examine one of the most famous "police brutality" cases, the Rodney King case. This incident led to one of the worst riots in American history, with over 50 deaths, thousands of injuries, over 7000 fires set and over a billion dollars in damage. This illustrates how strongly cases of police brutality affect society. The riots were sparked by the acquittal of four Caucasian police officers in the beating case of an African American suspect. The videotape of the beating by the officers fueled passions. Did the video tell the whole story? Portions of the beginning had been edited out that showed Rodney King charging the officers. Would this have made a difference? There had been a high-speed car chase that led up to the incident both on the freeway and on residential streets. Rodney King had endangered many lives because of his actions. Would there be have been more support for the officer's actions if Rodney King had hit and killed a child during the chase? When they finally stopped Rodney King, his two friends in the car with him complied with orders and were handcuffed with no major repercussions. Rodney King appeared confused and did not comply with orders. The police used a taser on him. This would normally knock any man down but it didn't affect Mr. King. Because of his strength and bizarre behaviour, the police contend that they thought Mr. King was on PCP, which is known to give people almost superhuman strength. This was a very live and dangerous situation and until Mr. King was restrained and in handcuffs, the police felt that Mr. King was very much a threat and as such, they felt the beating was justified. To a witness on the street watching this, it would look like a terrible beating with obvious racial overtones. Again, the question of defining what is and isn't police brutality arises. To the officers on scene, highly affected by the clear and present danger and adrenaline, this is not a case of abuse. From the person on the street witnessing a brutal beating, it is. We must revisit our definition from above; "was there the use of any force exceeding that reasonably necessary to accomplish a lawful police purpose?" In this instance, that decision was made in a court and they decided that the force was reasonable. This in turn sparked the racially charged riots, which also grew and became more than just about the Rodney King case. For some it was a protest, for others it was just a time when they could take part in mayhem and for many others it became a time when they could steal with impunity, but I digress. This was an example of how the media helped to shape the public perception to work against the officers by not presenting the larger story.

Another example of this complex issue of police brutality and excessive force is the current case of a police shooting here in Los Angeles in the Westlake District. The Westlake District is comprised of a largely immigrant Latino community. The police, patrolling on bicycles were flagged down and told there was a man that had stabbed someone. When they arrived they confronted a 37-year-old man named Manuel Jamines, a Guatemalan immigrant, with a knife menacing two women. The women told police he had blood on his hands and had tried to stab them. They ordered him to drop his knife in both Spanish and English but instead Jamines raised his knife and lunged at them. He was shot and died right there. This led to several days of civil disobedience and protest in the streets in that area of Los Angeles. Why were they protesting? The man clearly was a danger to the others in the crowded area surrounding the incident. Again, how you view this and if you think it was an example of police brutality or not lies in your own personal definition. Were the criteria for police brutality met? Was the force excessive? Some of the arguments that were made were that non-lethal methods should have been used to subdue him. These officers were on bicycles and did not carry tasers and the situation was too volatile to wait for more back up. In the eyes of the police, he was an immediate threat and could have easily attacked them or others before he could be controlled. Other arguments from the community are that he should have been shot in the arm or leg. From a police officer's standpoint, this is not feasible. They are trained to take the person down, they don't use this power lightly but in their judgment, it was too dangerous to try to shot him in the leg or arm because they were in a very crowded area and an innocent bystander could have been hit. These decisions must be made in a split second. It is easy for someone to pass judgment afterwards but if it is your responsibility to protect the public and you are forced to make a split second decision, then that is what you have to do. Personally, I don't see this case being as questionable as the Rodney King case, but nevertheless, it has led to many protests in the street, rocks and bottles being hurtled at police officers and meetings between angry crowds and the LAPD and the new chief, Charlie Beck. This points to the fact that your own personal "definition" of police brutality is what matters to most people, even in a case that seems more cut and dried. This makes it so much more subjective.

I feel compelled to explain where my position on this issue comes from. My family has a long history of police service. One of my uncles was high in the ranks of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Another uncle was a celebrated officer in the LAPD, having worked undercover early in his career back when Communism was a perceived threat. He later became a high-ranking officer within the LAPD. My brother was also a police officer for the LAPD for over 20 years, having served in some of the most dangerous areas of Los Angeles, including South Central LA and the Pacific Division, which includes Venice, well known for its gang activity. All of this helped to shape my perception of police work and the dangers involved. I have the highest respect for law enforcement. My brother has told me of many dangerous situations that officers face daily. Many people believe police brutality stems from officers that are power hungry, racists, sadistic and feel above the law. My belief is that at the end of the day, officers are just everyday people, with families, and at the end of the day they just want to be able to return home safely, play with their kids, and kiss their wives or husbands just like everybody else wants to. It just so happens that sometimes in their line of work, violence is a tool that must be used, not because they want to but because the actions of a suspected criminal demand its use.

Police work is dangerous and demanding work. My position does not exclude the possibility that police brutality exists, certainly it does. My position is that I feel police officers are often unjustly accused of brutality and tried in the media. The truth is determined by the definition of police brutality. Unfortunately, all parties involved do not often agree upon the definition.