Policing the Cops

Human Rights

We alert cities to the danger of possible terrorist attack. We alert people to the presence of sex offenders in their neighborhood. Now, as the most recent police brutality case in the Golden State so clearly demonstrates, it's time to alert people to the complaint and discipline history of their local police officers, so they can better gauge the risks in their communities.

Americans need a Police Complaint Database.

Does it surprise us that Officer Jeremy Morse of Inglewood, Calif., had a history of police brutality before he punched a helpless, handcuffed juvenile in the mouth? There is a great deal of discretion in the execution of the law, and that makes street patrol officers particularly unaccountable. In fact, as the crime rate plummeted in the 1990s, the number of law enforcement personnel who were sent to prison multiplied five times.

In response to several different police brutality scandals, such as the Abner Louima scandal in New York City and the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles, communities around the country have been challenging their city councils to give civilian review boards the power to investigate citizen complaints against police officers.

Typically, police departments guard the files of police officers and legal access is severely limited. So mayors, police chiefs and members of the police commissions have typically balked, saying they investigate their own just fine.

There is something both funny and sad about their hubris. Two years ago on Christmas Eve, computer equipment was destroyed and internal affairs files stolen from a Baltimore police department headquarters that had recently instituted a campaign to weed out corrupt officers. Among the files missing was one involving an officer who was charged with planting drugs on a suspect before arresting him.

Fortunately, the San Diego Public Defender's Office is trying to change the way citizens can police their local police without permission from the police department.

A few years ago, the office began tracking complaints against police officers by compiling information from public court records, ranging from civil offenses to family court charges. They are looking for claims of domestic violence by a spouse in divorce records or harassment charges by an ex-girlfriend that resulted in a restraining order.

Police unions say that the limited information compiled by the public defender's office could be abused, or that the level of scrutiny will deter people from joining the force. Paul Cooper, San Diego city attorney, fears that the unproven allegations of officers' divorce records might make their way into the database and be used in court as a series of red herrings to impeach the integrity of the officer.

These are the same law enforcement groups that want the law on their side when they base their door-smashing drug busts on hearsay about drugs on the premises. These groups never showed concern for the possible inaccuracy of the information on Megan's Law lists. Public safety, they cried, should trump privacy rights.

If the search can uncover a pattern of violence in the police officer's private life, the public defender insists that his credibility could come into question and this could result in a fairer trial. If nothing else, the information could be used to identify a problem officer.

Although a commendable first step, the database does not go far enough. Right now, the San Diego public defender's information is for their eyes only, and they're only searching the records of those officers testifying against their clients.

A comprehensive database -- organized by local civilian review boards to keep track of all citizen complaints against police officers -- would be a helpful community tool to identify a pattern of excessive force by police officers. And the list should be made public via the Internet.

In my own backyard, four cops known as the "Oakland Riders" were recently charged with beating citizens and planting drugs on them. The suspected ringleader is still on the lam.

What if those "Oakland Riders" knew that when they pulled over a car, the driver might already know they were about to encounter a suspected perjurer? Or that a citizen might know that the officer's assignment to patrol duty was being challenged by civil rights groups because he or she has a high ratio of shooting unarmed citizens or making mistakes that resulted in an injured or dead suspect in police custody?

If Oakland city or police officials had alerted us to the discipline or complaint history of the Oakland Riders the community could have inoculated itself from the rogue cops and the type of brutality scandals that have rocked law enforcement agencies across the nation in the past few years.

It's only a matter of time before another police officer gets caught on tape brutalizing another citizen. Communities need new tools to better police their local police now.

Loya's (BuddhaLobo@aol.com) memoir is due to be published by HarperCollins in the fall of next year.

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