© 2002 by Bill Wilson
Artwork © 2002 by Nick Bougas
MAKE THAT PIG SQUEAL:
Police Abuse and How to Fight It
by Bill Wilson
If it hasn't happened to you yet, then it probably will: a run-in with the law. One possible scenario: You're driving home late at night, and a vehicle pulls in behind you. You see flashing lights come on. Scared, you pull over. You see a heavily armed individual exit the police unit in your rear view mirror. You wonder what is going to happen. Maybe you have been drinking a little, or maybe you're just tired. In any event, you have the right to expect courteous and professional treatment from the officer. Maybe that is what you will receive, maybe not. Either way, you fear you have no control over what is about to happen.
Another scenario: You are walking along a city street, perhaps in your neighborhood, perhaps someplace you have never been before. You are minding your own business, causing no harm and not disturbing the peace. Nevertheless, you see a patrol car stop directly ahead and park. Two imposing figures exit from either side and approach you. Their hands are frighteningly close to the weapons they carry. An involuntary shudder ripples through your body as your heart begins to race. What do they want?
One more scenario: You are participating in a protest for a cause you believe in. It may be to save the whales or the unborn or American jobs or whatever. Despite the fact that you are expressing your opinions in a peaceful fashion, you soon find yourself surrounded by uniformed thugs wielding batons and pepper spray. You are arrested and dragged away, maybe kicked or otherwise abused physically. As you are tossed into the waiting paddy wagon, you wonder if this is the end of your mistreatment, or just the beginning.
If reading the above causes you to feel uneasy, or if it stirs up bad memories, you are not alone. Abusive treatment by the cops has always been a serious problem here in the Land of the Free, and is worsening day by day. Don't believe it? Read on, and discover what is happening to American citizens in every state of the Union. Learn also what you can do to combat this nightmare, and how to conduct yourself if you ever find yourself mistreated by those sworn to protect and serve the public.
Some people regard the issue of police abuse with the same nostalgic attitude they apply towards slavery and other past injustices. At one time, law enforcement agencies probably engaged in brutality, they quip, but this is no longer the case. Would that this were true, but it is not. Major studies by groups such as the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International confirm the alarming truth: In cities across the nation, cops routinely abuse and harass citizens they deem suspicious or “undesirable.” They frame individuals for crimes in which they had no involvement. And they use verbal and physical abuse to torture, and occasionally kill, people in custody.
In August 1998, Army Sergeant First Class Rossano V. Gerald and his 12-year-old son Gregory were enjoying a road trip across the Southwest when they crossed the border into Oklahoma. Gerald was a career soldier and a highly decorated veteran of Operation Desert Storm. Unfortunately for him, he was also African-American. Within thirty minutes of entering the state he was pulled over by state troopers who suspected the war hero and his son of transporting illegal drugs. They were interrogated and set free to go on their way.
Within a few minutes, however, they were stopped once again. This time they were subjected to a two and a half hour ordeal in which Gerald was terrorized by a police dog, the pair were held in a sweltering police cruiser with the air conditioning turned off, and they were told that they would be attacked by the dog if they tried to escape. Halfway through the procedure the troopers turned off the video camera in their car that was taping the incident. No drugs were found.
The only “probable cause” the pigs had for mistreating these citizens was the fact that their skin was brown and they were driving through Oklahoma. Rossano learned what Jewish World War One veterans in Nazi Germany learned seventy years ago: Service to the State means little when one is a member of a disfavored race.
Details of this and other disturbing incidents are contained in the ACLU report Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on Our Nations' Highways. Our beloved leaders, in their zeal to carry out their War on Some Drugs (also known as the War to Keep the World Safe for the Alcohol and Tobacco Industries) have initiated the practices of pretext stops and racial profiling. A pretext stop is when a driver is tailed by a cop and pulled over for some minor violation. The officer has no actual interest in enforcing the law that they claim the motorist has broken. What they are really attempting to do is to catch the parties in the vehicle in commission of a major offense, such as carrying illegal substances.
To maximize the effectiveness of this tactic, it is often combined with a selective approach to law enforcement based on race. In other words, if you are black, the authorities are going to find an excuse to pull you over so they can search your car.
In many parts of the nation Hispanic drivers are similarly singled out.
For years apologists for the police have maintained that the practice of racial profiling is a myth concocted by whacked-out liberals and drug legalization advocates. A growing body of evidence is silencing these claims, however. The aforementioned ACLU report is but one of numerous studies which have revealed the practice to be rampant.
In 1999, under the pressure of a three-year study by the Department of Justice, the Attorney General of New Jersey conceded that a small number of highway patrolman in the Garden State did indeed single out blacks for stops and searches based solely upon their skin color. In fact, it was found that on one section of the Jersey Turnpike, eighty percent of the vehicles subjected to searches were driven by African-Americans. Similar findings have been made in almost every major city and region of the country. It seems that the spirit of Jim Crow is alive and well when it comes to law enforcement on our nation's highways.
Do you think that because your skin is lily-white you have nothing to fear from abusive cops? Think again. If you are in any way outspoken about the principles you believe in, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a baton blow, a cloud of pepper spray, or even worse.
Protesters against the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington, DC, in April 2000 found this out all too well. The progressive publication Zmagazine (www.zmag.org) detailed numerous atrocities committed against demonstrators. One non-violent participant suffered three broken ribs while being arrested by police. Other reports told of peaceful demonstrators having their faces slammed into brick walls by officers.
Once incarcerated, many protesters were denied food, water, lavatory facilities and access to medical attention or legal counsel for over twenty hours. One young lady, who was hypoglycemic, made repeated requests to the guards for food, only to have her pleas ignored. Eventually she began to vomit as her sugar levels fell. Jail officials continued to deny her food and medical attention.
In addition to physical abuse and neglect, many of those arrested were subjected to threats and intimidation. One group was informed by U.S. marshals that “there are no cameras here. We can do what we want.” Others were told that they would be released into the general jail population. “They love to kill white boys over there, you pussy-faggot protesters,” was the remark made by one cop to a group of detainees.
Activists on the other end of the political spectrum have fared no better. In March 1989 Atlanta police savaged members of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue when they demonstrated in front of clinics. Many of them were dragged by their hair to a waiting police bus with blacked-out windows, where they were beaten by the cops. When they were brought to their holding cells they were denied food and medical attention for 33 hours. Repeated requests by representatives of the Salvation Army to bring them meals were denied. Several of the protesters wore crosses and other symbols of their faith. These were stripped from their bodies and destroyed in front of them. According to some reports, officers raped and sexually abused several of the female demonstrators, openly fondling their breasts while inmates in the regular jail population watched and cheered.
Veteran civil rights leader Hosea Williams, who is strongly pro-choice, later told reporters that he was sickened by the way Atlanta's “Finest” treated the supporters of Operation Rescue. He commented that the tactics employed were as brutal as those used on him and other civil rights marchers in the late 1960s. The lesson from this seems to be clear: Keep your beliefs to yourself if you don't want to be beaten and tortured here in the good ol' USA.
A time-honored principle of American justice is that the accused is innocent of criminal wrongdoing until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, corrupt cops and their confederates have often abused this precept by manufacturing fraudulent evidence. Recently, Illinois Governor George Ryan wanted to know why more “criminals” on Death Row ended up having their convictions overturned than were being put to death. Ryan, who in principle is strongly in favor of capital punishment, declared a moratorium on executions in his state until his question could be answered. This courageous act by a public official underscores a frightening truth: Many of those in our jails and prisons are innocent of the crimes of which they were found guilty. In an alarming number of instances, cops joined with prosecutors to frame these individuals.
In 1998 LAPD officer Rafael Perez was arrested for stealing eight pounds of cocaine from an evidence locker. Bargaining for a reduced sentence, he agreed to give prosecutors information on corruption within his department. This led to an investigation that revealed numerous frame-ups of innocent citizens by the cops. In one instance, Carlos Vertiz, a 44-year old man with no criminal record, was shot to death by LAPD officers who suspected him of being a drug dealer. After realizing their mistake, the shooters planted a shotgun near the corpse, which they later claimed Vertiz had pointed at them.
This is only one of dozens of incidents that show the Los Angeles police to be guilty of evidence fabrication, falsified charges and outright lies. This investigation has already led to twenty officers being relieved of duty. At least thirty convictions have been overturned, and others are under investigation. A revealing note: In the vast majority of these fraudulent cases, the innocent parties pled guilty rather than take a chance on the court system.
Evidence fabrication is not limited to street officers, however. Case in point: police scientist Fred Zain. Among Texas and West Virginia prosecutors he was a god. A serologist (scientist who specializes in the study of serums and body chemicals), his “expert” testimony led to the conviction of numerous supposed murderers and rapists. Among these was Glenn Dale Woodall, who spent nearly five years in prison.
Woodall's attorney did not trust Mr. Zain, however, and commissioned a California expert to perform a DNA test on his client. The result: Woodall was found innocent of the crime he was convicted of. This led to an investigation of Zain's work that revealed that he had faked test results in cases spanning ten years. Zain's testimony was instrumental in over a hundred and fifty convictions during that time period. This underscores a frightening truth: Many times the legal system employs fraudulent evidence, junk science (including “recovered memories”) and unreliable testimony in its zeal to find and punish the perpetrators of a crime. All too often innocent individuals find themselves being punished for offenses in which they had no involvement.
In sundry cases, though, corrupt cops need no pretense of punishing criminals to brutalize their victims. In August 1997, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima witnessed New York City cops brutalizing citizens while engaged in “crowd control.” He verbally denounced their actions, and was knocked to the ground by them in response. Louima's cousin struck one of the officers, Justin Volpe, and then fled. In response, Louima was dragged into a patrol car, where he was savagely beaten by the police. He was then driven to precinct headquarters, where he was held down while Officer Volpe shoved a stick into his rectum with such force that he ruptured the immigrant's bladder and other internal organs. The damage was so great that the physicians who later treated Louima noted that he was passing urine through his anus and fecal material through his penis. Volpe was subsequently found guilty and imprisoned for his actions, but prosecutors found it difficult to penetrate the NYPD's infamous “blue wall of silence” in order to obtain the necessary testimony. Amnesty International has noted this and countless other examples of torture performed by law enforcement officers in the United States.
In spite of the above horror stories, there are things that citizens can do about vicious and dishonest cops. The ACLU's publication Fighting Police Abuse: A Community Action Manual outlines several steps to curb their activities. The most important of these is to establish a civilian oversight committee. It will be empowered to investigate allegations of law enforcement misconduct. These already exist in several major cities in the United States.
To establish such an organization, it is first necessary to build a case for its need. Forget many sources of “official” data about the cops, such as the arrest rate, citizen complaint rate, case clearance rate, etc. All these sources are under the control of the department, and are easily manipulated. The following are important things to know about local law enforcement agencies:
The above records can be used to build a case for a civilian review board to be presented to local organizations. These can in turn use their influence to press for the formation of such a committee, with or without the cooperation of law enforcement. Once created, this group can investigate and address shootings, brutality, and discriminatory actions, as well as invasions of privacy and other abuses frequently practiced by corrupt cops. The ACLU offers more information on this subject at their web site (www.aclu.org).
- Information on shootings – specifically the number of times in which police weapons have been discharged, the officers involved, and the circumstances surrounding these incidents. With this information, it is possible to determine if there has been an upsurge in shootings, if minorities or other groups are frequently victimized, and if certain officers have a history of suspicious or excessive weapons use. All police departments have this data, but not all are willing to release it. If one does not, then organizations such as the NAACP, local ACLU chapter, and other such groups can make demands that the information be made available. Concerned journalists and other media people can frequently be of assistance as well. Consider publishing and distributing leaflets, a newsletter, or zine to draw public attention. The idea is to put the spotlight on the cops, so they will be pressured to release the information.
- Details on use of physical force – you need to know how often officers in your area use physical “persuasion” in their dealings with the public. Look for short- and long-term trends in such incidents, and whether or not certain officers frequently resort to manhandling suspects. This information can often be obtained from local residents who monitor police activity. Formal complaints filed by citizens are another source, though obtaining reliable data on these can be nearly impossible. Internal police reports, however, may very well be accessible to the public. You should ask to see these records.
- Standard operating procedures – every law enforcement department has a manual that details guidelines for arrests, dealing with the public, use of physical and deadly force, etc. This can often be found in the local library. If not, request that the cops make a copy available for public scrutiny. Your state's open records laws can prove useful in difficult cases.
- Lawsuits – civil actions brought against law enforcement agencies are matters of public record. The local ACLU chapter, or other public advocacy group, may have already done research on this. Check with them.
- Patterns of hiring and other personnel issues – though not relevant in all cases, an agency's habits in minority employment and other human resource matters can often reveal problems with discrimination and other forms of corruption. This information can be obtained from the department itself, or from the municipality's personnel office.
Of course, this is a long-term solution to what is often a much more immediate problem. Without resorting to obviously illegal actions (such as poisoning the local doughnut shop), there are things that citizens can do to protect themselves, should they be confronted by an abusive or violent cop.
It is important to demonstrate an assertive, yet civil and respectful, attitude towards the officer. The cop should know that you are aware of your rights, yet he or she must also believe that you fully respect him or her (even if that is not the case). Treat the police like you would want to be treated.
Sometimes a bad cop will invade your private space or even touch you, as a tactic to establish control. Politely ask him or her to desist. If he or she refuses, he or she can be arrested later on charges of assault and/or battery. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES TOUCH THE OFFICER OR INVADE HIS OR HER PRIVATE SPACE. THIS CAN GET YOU BEATEN OR KILLED.
It may be helpful to say something to the effect of “I saw someone a moment ago with a video camera.” Being caught on tape is a bad cop's worst fear. Keep in mind also that most patrol cars are now equipped with video cameras which record police-citizen interactions. Try to stay in plain view of this device.
I have been told by representatives of the company Pre-Paid Legal Services (www.prepaidlegalservices.com) that they give their customers vehicle decals which state that they have 24/7 access to legal counsel. Having such a sign on your car may cause the police to exercise greater restraint. Organizations such as the American Automobile Association (www.AAA.com) provide bail and other legal help to their members. These services are worth investigating.
Keep your hands in plain view at all times. Notify the patrolman before you reach for anything, such as your wallet. If at all possible, make sure that there are witnesses nearby who observe the interaction between you and the officer. This can often prevent a “frame-up” attempt on his or her part, such as planting drugs in your vehicle.
If the police insist on searching your automobile, you are not obligated to grant them permission. Doing so could adversely affect your chances in court, if it comes to that. In certain cases, where they believe there is “probable cause,” they may search your car without a warrant, but make it clear that this is being done without your consent.
Never refuse to sign a ticket; this can get you arrested. If you believe the citation is unfair then you can always fight it in court later. If the cops want you to take a blood, breath or urine test because they suspect you are driving under the influence, then refusing to do so can get your license suspended.
If you are approached by the police on the street, stay calm even if they attempt to intimidate or provoke you. You are under no obligation to speak to them, and in fact saying nothing is often your best option. NEVER LIE TO THE COPS! This can backfire on you in a major way.
If you are confronted by someone claiming to be a plainclothes policeman, ask for identification. Always get the badge number and name of any law enforcement personnel you encounter. Make sure the person you are dealing with is really an officer. There have been several recent incidents across the country of individuals impersonating cops in order to commit various crimes, such as home invasion or rape. Call the precinct headquarters if a phone is available.
If stopped while driving, you must show your license and registration to the officer. If you are on foot, you cannot be arrested merely for refusing to identify yourself. If you are in a group, the cops may try to separate you and interrogate you individually. It is important that everyone in your party know that the less said, the better.
Be aware that the police will often use deception in order to coerce you into talking to them. They may say something like “we know that you were involved in such-and-such incident” even though they have no such knowledge. Never tell them anything you do not want them to know. Silence is the rule when being questioned by officers.
If you are arrested, do not resist. Advise the officer that you wish to meet with an attorney immediately. DO NOT ALLOW THE COPS TO INTERROGATE YOU WITHOUT TALKING TO A LAWYER FIRST. Within three hours of being arrested, you have a right to two free and complete phone calls: to legal counsel and to a bail bondsman.
While being transported to jail or to police headquarters, take mental notes of anything improper that you notice during the ride. This includes reckless driving by the cops as well as any physical or verbal mistreatment. Sometimes an abusive officer will brake suddenly for an imaginary animal that runs out in the street. They do this in hopes that their detainee will fly forward and be injured or terrified. (I once knew a cop who bragged about how he would do this to those he perceived as “having an attitude.”) If this happens, stay calm and mentally note where the incident occurs. Try to notice any bystanders or motorists who may see what the pig is doing, and who could bear witness against him or her later.
The ACLU provides guidelines on their web site for handling encounters with the police. These can be printed and folded up into a convenient wallet card. It is advisable to keep one of these on your person at all times.
In dealing with abusive cops, knowledge and a cool, calm attitude are keys to surviving the encounter. When that inevitable brush with the law occurs, remember that you have rights that are guaranteed by the United States Constitution, the strongest defense against tyranny the world has ever known. By keeping this in mind, you may very well survive the incident with your freedom, not to mention your life, intact. I wish you the best of luck.
How to Protect Yourself Against Corrupt Police Officers, manual by Mark Gaines, human rights abuse activist; can be read and downloaded at http://home.earthlink.net/~dansegypsy/police.htm
Repressed Memories: Junk Science in the Courts, by Paul and Shirley Eberle. Loompanics Unlimited 1998 Main Catalog
Stolen Lives – Killed by Law Enforcement, Second Edition, by The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, The Anthony Baez Foundation, and The National Lawyer's Guild, 1999.
www.aclu.org – official Web site of the American Civil Liberties Union.
www.wsws.org – World Socialist Web site.
www.prolife.about.com – contains information about police abuse of anti-abortion activists.
www.copcrimes.com – extremely useful Web site for further study.
Bill Wilson is the author of Build a Catapult in Your Backyard and the forthcoming title, The Art and Science of Moonshining.
2002 Main Catalog ¨ Loompanics Unlimited ¨ www.loompanics.com