Linn Washington Jr. is an award-winning journalist who writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Tribune. A graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship, Washington writes regularly on issues involving law, the criminal justice system, news media and inequities involving race and/or class. This ’information junkie’ teaches multi-media urban reporting at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa. He lives in New Jersey and frequently travels abroad.
The Other Afrik - International - United States - Crime - Security
Police Brutality – Big human rights abuse in America
The election of the first black President in the United States and his elevation of the first Latino to the U.S. Supreme Court did not abate police brutality that disproportionately impacts blacks and Latinos.
San Francisco Bay Area radio show host J.R. Valrey didn’t need a United Nations report containing criticisms of police abuses in America to confirm for him that lawless brutality by law enforcers is a big problem in the United States.
Weeks before release of that UN report Valrey released his documentary film examining the January 1, 2009 fatal shooting of unarmed Oscar Grant by a transit policeman at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland, California.
That unprovoked killing of Grant sparked riots in Oakland, a city where anger triggered by daily indignities from police like profanity-filled commands and unnecessary use of force rages among non-whites from teens to the elderly.
That deadly New Years Day shooting captured on cell phone videos by eyewitnesses triggered condemnations across America.
Valray’s travels across America screening his film “Operation Small Axe” highlighted for him how governmental officials in the U.S. constantly reject the systemic nature of police brutality.
“Police brutality is definitely not ‘isolated incidents’ as officials always say after each new killing by police or beating by cops,” said Valrey, host of the Block Report, a program aired on KPFA-FM, the Pacifica station in the Bay Area.
“When we screened the film in Atlanta people were still talking about the police murder of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston [in 2006].” (Police killed Johnston during a botched drug raid.)
In early November 2010 when the United States went through its first-ever Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations all nations across the globe called on America to address its police brutality problem
During that review fifty-six countries including staunch US allies like England and Israel offered 228 recommendations for improving human rights in the nation that postures itself as the world’s leader in protecting rights for all.
Those recommendations involved a wide range of issues from attacking poverty among Native Americans to addressing abuses impacting immigrants, ending use of the death penalty and closing the infamous Guantanamo prison.
However, most of the recommendations presented during that human rights review centered on concerns about deprivations and disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Countries criticizing police abuses in the U.S. included nations not normally critical of America.
Cyprus, for example, called on America to end police brutality against African-Americans and Latinos. Oscar Grant, shot in the back while handcuffed, was black and a father of a young daughter who was not engaged in criminal conduct.
Uruguay called on the U.S. government to investigate the police use of excessive force and prosecute the perpetrators. Police officers across America who are involved in abuse incidents rarely face criminal charges, and most escape even discipline from their police department.
In an unusual twist for police abuse incidents, a jury last summer convicted Johannes Mehserle, the BART police officer who shot Grant, of involuntary manslaughter. Mehserle contended he mistakenly grabbed his pistol while reaching for his electric-shock TASER, sidestepping the fact that he needed neither weapon since Grant was already subdued and offering no resistance.
Yet in a procedure all too typical of favoritism benefitting the few police that end up facing prison time, the judge at Mehserle’s trial delivered a wrist-slap sentence of two years – less than half the standard minimum for involuntary manslaughter and a punishment comprising less prison time than pro-football star quarterback Michael Vick received for financing dog fighting.
Mehserle is white and Vick is black.
Data in the 2010 semi-annual report released by the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project listed 2,541 cases of various kinds of police misconduct across America between January and June of this year. Abuse from “Physical Force” constituted the largest category of those misconduct reports.
Police misconduct caused 124 deaths in the first six months of 2010, with 60-percent of those fatalities resulting from police gunfire, according to the NPMSRP’s report.
The little known 1951 petition presented to the United Nations charging the U.S. government with committing genocide against African-Americans listed police brutality, particularly fatal shootings, as the “most practical expression of government policy” in the killing of blacks.
The “Operation Small Axe” film also features a segment about the prosecution of Valrey, who, during an unruly protest days after the Grant shooting, was arrested by Oakland police and charged with felony arson.
Valrey says his arrest was a blatant attempt to punish him for his news coverage and his criticisms of police brutality, racism and other contentious issues in Oakland.
Valrey, who faced 3-to-5-years in prison if convicted, spent two days in jail after his arrest and then 14-months on bail before prosecutors dropped the arson charge on the first day of his trial citing lack of evidence.
“Police made up the charges at the police station. They said I started a fire in a trash can outside of the federal building. Why would I start a fire outside one of the most secure buildings in Oakland where everything is videoed?” Valrey said.
“At the preliminary hearing the cop that testified against me said he did not see me start the fire but he saw some smoke coming from the can. He said he was 100-yards away and it was at night.”
Valrey says police refused his requests to return his video camera and even ignored a court order he obtained. “I never got it back,” he says.
Hours after an October 2010 screening of Valrey’s film at a university in Philadelphia, Pa daily newspapers in that city carried articles about two separate lawsuits filed against Philly police alleging brutality – one by a state legislator and the other by a college professor both of whom are black and were not engaged in misconduct.
Ironically the same week in November when U.S. representatives defended America’s human rights record at that UN review the Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action lawsuit against the Philadelphia Police Department over an abusive practice in that city where the U.S. Constitution was drafted and ratified.
That ACLU lawsuit targets the racial profiling-like procedure tagged ‘Stop-&-Frisk’ – where police randomly search persons looking for guns and/or drugs. This practice in Philadelphia impacted 253,333 persons in 2009 – a 148 percent increase from 2005 – with 72.2 percent of those 2009 ‘stops’ involving blacks who comprise 44 percent of that city’s population, according to the lawsuit.
According to the ACLU-Pa that dragnet-style policing only produced arrests in 8.4 percent of the Philadelphia ‘stops’ with the majority of those arrests being for “interactions following the initial stop” like disorderly conduct and resisting arrest – alleged offenses that most likely arose from objections to being stopped without cause.
Exposing a paradox in America’s race-based policing, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and its Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey (named in the ACLU lawsuit) are both black but each backs the Stop-&-Frisk policy as a necessary anti-crime measure downplaying its racially disproportionate impact.
Former Philadelphia Mayor John Street told a reporter that the excessive Stop-&-Frisk is actually counter-productive to effective crime fighting because the practice alienates citizens that police need to assist them in crime fighting.
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