Violence by police: stew pot of realities

November 19, 1995|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

"Edge of The Knife: Police Violence In The Americas," by Paul Chevigny. 273 pages. New York: The New Press. $25

Twenty years ago, a gang of American sailors gathered on a dock in Salvador, Brazil, after a long night of liberty in the most lawless port city any of them had ever seen. Bonfires roared in the streets. Child prostitutes beckoned from open windows. The pop of gunshots echoed.

Waiting for a boat to take them out to their ship anchored in the harbor, none of them paid much attention to the dirty-faced little boy who sidled into their midsts - until he made his move.

"Grab that kid!" one of the sailors shouted. "He stole my watch!"

In a flash, the little thief broke free from the crowd with the hot Timex in his hand and was running free down the docks. He was almost in the clear when a police officer stepped from an alley, raised a heavy black pistol and shot him dead.

I was one of those sailors. And Paul Chevigny's new book - "Edge of The Knife, Police Violence In The Americas" - brought the memory of that night flooding back, in a new context.

Far from extraordinary, Mr. Chevigny finds, such abuse of police power is part of a decades-old continuum that runs down the length of the New World from New York to Buenos Aires.

A professor at the New York University of Law and an often-cited scholar on police affairs, Mr. Chevigny brings an unprecedented study of six major urban police departments - including Los Angeles, Mexico City, Kingston and Sao Paulo. Ultimately, he identifies patterns of official violence in each place that are startling in their sameness.

If he had stopped there, he would have made a valuable contribution to understanding modern police dysfunction. But he proceeds with relentless logic to show that police violence in the Americas boils up from a common stew pot of historic, political and economic realities.

And as the temperature continues to rise - stoked by widening disparities in wealth and deteriorating social conditions - tolerance for police abuse seems to be increasing as well.

With an ear for the telling anecdote and an eye for the essential statistic, Mr. Chevigny delivers a civics lesson that should be required reading for police and policy makers. For everybody else, it should be a duty of informed citizenship.

Mr. Chevigny's findings seriously undermine a notion, accepted

reflexively by middle class U.S. citizens, that we are somehow safer from police abuse than our cousins to the south because of our Constitution.

He shows how the same political rhetoric that justifies summary executions in Rio De Janeiro also inspired the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD and the routine brutality recently uncovered in New York, Philadelphia, Memphis and New Orleans.

Mr. Chevigny finds politicians calling for "a war on crime" up and down the length of the Americas to divert public attention from the fact that they are doing little to address the underlying causes.

Worse, the rhetoric has produced universal disgust among citizens for the slowness and lenience of their court systems and a fear of crime that is often out of proportion to reality.

These demands have produced a kind of institutional psychosis in police departments as they have struggled to validate public perception of the danger and prove that progress is being made in combating it.

The problem, one frustrated Brazilian police major says, is that "dangerous work does not just exist. The state of danger does not exist; it is we who make it."

Mr. Chevigny strives for optimism by pointing out that the tools exist to stop police violence. Most important, he notes, the violence is not necessary. Brief reform movements in various cities have produced sharp declines in police brutality with no increase in criminal activity.

Ultimately, however, Mr. Chevigny's findings do not leave much room for hope. More than two decades of police violence in the Americas teaches us that the die has been cast.

Jim Haner is a reporter for The Sun, His 12-year career has concentrated on coverage of police, courts and criminal justice, including two extensive investigations of police misconduct. He has worked for the Virginian-Pilot, the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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