When the guys in white hats act like guys in black hats Public worry is justified until the police begin to police themselves

September 24, 1995|By Joseph D. McNamara

Citizens are having trouble distinguishing the good guys from the bad. Retired Los Angeles Police Department Detective Mark Fuhrman spouts venomous racism and brags to an aspiring screenwriter about torturing, beating and framing suspects.

Cops across the country murder people, pull armed robberies while in uniform, sell dope, steal drug-buy money, shake down criminals, accept bribes and falsify evidence against criminal defendants. The standard defense coming from law enforcement is that only a relative handful of the 400,000 cops nationwide go bad.

For several reasons, the public is not reassured.

First, the number of reported cases of bad cops is rising. Some Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs get caught robbing and extorting money from drug dealers. In New Orleans, a uniformed cop is accused of murdering her partner and shop owners during a robbery committed while she was on patrol.

In Washington, D.C., and in Atlanta, cops in drug stings are arrested for stealing and taking bribes. In Boston, two white cops frame a black man for murdering a white woman. New York state troopers falsify evidence that sends people to prison.

In San Francisco, counterfeit evidence means hundreds of drug convictions are likely to be overturned. Similar evidence tampering forces the prosecution to reopen many cases in Philadelphia.

It's not just the rank and file, either.

The former police chief of Detroit is in prison for stealing drug-buy money. In a small New England town, the chief steals drugs from the evidence locker for his own use. A number of Southern sheriffs are convicted of being in league with drug smugglers.

No longer untouchable

Agencies thought to be untouchable are suddenly reaping as many bad headlines as the perennially troubled New York City Police Department. The Drug Enforcement Agency's agent who arrested Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega on drug-trafficking charges is in jail for stealing laundered drug money. The FBI catches one of its agents taking drugs from the evidence stockpile and trying to market them to regional drug dealers.

Of course, police corruption is not new. The heritage of cops in America includes corruption, racism and abuse of power for political purposes.

The urban police forces started in the 1840s followed the orders of political machines like Tammany Hall. Aficionados of Raymond Chandler's private eye, Philip Marlowe, will recall his good luck in encountering an occasional honest cop as he roamed Southern California in the 1930s.

Ironically, it was the LAPD -- whose recent problems have amplified police departments' sins nationwide -- under the leadership of William H. Parker that first gained its freedom from politics to become a professional force.

Maintaining order

One of the fundamental problems of American policing is the conflict between law-enforcement duties and maintaining order in the streets. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department is probably the most arrest-happy department in the country.

By contrast, cops in other cities send drunks home, overlook minor violations and seek to keep the streets calm without resorting to arrest.

Also, the LAPD, as well as other police forces, maintains control by aggressively policing minority communities. Resisters are taught a lesson and, if necessary, punished physically, especially if they show "contempt of cop." Politicians and officials whose careers depend on tough-on-crime rhetoric are reluctant to ask questions about what the cops are doing.

Indeed, public fear of crime has made it increasingly difficult for the relatively small number of police chiefs who really care to get civil-service commissions to uphold discipline in their ranks. And the few district attorneys willing to prosecute cops for unnecessary use of force find it difficult to get juries to convict officers, especially when the victim of a police beating is a minority. After all, in a "war," you cannot tie your soldiers' hands when the "enemy" is so dangerous.

American policing has greatly improved since the civil rights movement directed attention to police abuses. But the recent outbreak of bad-cop problems has cost police forces a lot of the credibility they had gained among minority groups with good policing. Still, there is one silver lining in the cloud of distrust created by the Fuhrman tapes and the plethora of police scandals: more self-scrutiny.

We should not, however, make the mistake of getting lost in debates about such reform mechanisms as civilian-review boards, community policing and special prosecutors. Rather, the essential task is to create within police agencies an incentive to break the code of silence among the rank and file and encourage cops to police themselves.

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