Ignore brutality at your own risk

April 04, 2000|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I WAS in Rudolph Giuliani's fair city a couple of weeks ago. Had a layover at Penn Station and trudged over to Times Square to grab some dinner. The thing I remember most is that you couldn't go six feet without seeing a cop. I'm talking police everywhere.

In 20-something years of traveling in and out of New York City, I had never felt quite as safe. Or as unsettled.

It didn't help that this was a few weeks after the acquittal of four officers in the case of Amadou Diallo and a scant two days after the shooting death of Patrick Dorismond. Many observers see a troubling pattern here: Dorismond, Diallo and a fellow named Malcolm Ferguson, three unarmed black men shot to death by New York City police in the last 13 months. Add to that the broomstick sodomy of Abner Louima in 1997 and you have all the elements for a new installment of an old argument: that police are routinely guilty of brutality against black men.

It's a point that seems beyond serious debate to me, but let's leave that aside for the moment. Because here's the thing that makes me wonder: Today, it's black men in New York City; tomorrow, it's who, and where?

It's not a question I've heard before. Nor is the silence surprising. In the last few years, crime has fallen to historic lows in this country. Who wants to rock that boat? Whatever police are doing, it has had a salutary effect on our ability to walk the streets, and isn't that the only thing that matters?

Some folks would say that it is. Reminds me of the old line about sausage -- if you ever saw how it's made, you'd never enjoy it again. The same, I think, is true of justice.

So you get the sense that brutality complaints from minority people in urban areas reach the rest of the country only as a dimly heard cry. Something you know you ought to care about and yet you find it difficult to do so. Or else you defiantly refuse to care, figuring that the victims must've had it coming.

The latter mindset is most clearly exemplified by the behavior of Mr. Giuliani. After the Dorismond shooting, the tyrant of the Big Apple released sealed information from the man's juvenile police record. It was an arrogant and astonishingly mean-spirited attempt to put the victim on trial, to suggest that because of what he did as a teen-ager, the 26-year-old Dorismond somehow deserved to be shot to death.

But the question here isn't what kind of man Patrick Dorismond was. Rather, it's what kind of men and women do we have as police? It isn't, is he out of control, but are they?

New York City's woes, combined with a mushrooming police scandal in Los Angeles, lend that question pungent urgency. Both suggest that it's past time for a tough, constructive public dialogue about the tactics, training and oversight of these most vital of public employees. Among those who would benefit most from such a dialogue: the thousands of good cops for whom a tough job is made tougher by a handful of undisciplined rogues.

Because it gets harder every day to tell justice from sausage, and if your solution is simply to avoid looking, then you become part of the problem. And contrary to what you might think, it is your problem. It's a fallacy to believe ill-trained, poorly supervised, out-of-control law officers will confine their misbehavior to certain people in certain places. From where I sit, Dorismond, Diallo and the others are like canaries in a coal mine whose fate we ignore at our own peril.

At the end of the day, the issue isn't race, culture or geography, but the right of every law-abiding citizen to be secure in his or her own body. In recent years, the police have done an admirable job of protecting us from those who would steal that security.

Now, who will protect us from our protectors?

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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