Issue 190 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Revolutionary socialists have always argued that the role of the police actually has very little to do with protecting ordinary people from harm. The police serve to protect the private property and interests of the rich, and to uphold the status quo in society. This means that for those who are working class or poor, especially if they are black or Latino, the police function as an occupying force which holds the local population in open contempt.
If anything, politicians' ravings about crime have only increased the confidence of police forces in cities all over the US to do as they please, from beating and killing innocent people to drug running. The taped racist ramblings of retired Los Angeles cop Mark Fuhrman, presented as evidence in the OJ Simpson trial, speak volumes--especially when he brags that police do not need probable cause to search suspects because 'you're god'.
Black author James Baldwin's description of the role of the police in urban black ghettos, written over 30 years ago, holds just as true today, 'He is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it. He moves... like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country, which is exactly what he is.' In a poll taken last year more than 80 percent of black respondents said they did not trust the US criminal justice system. Half described the police as behaving like a 'lawless gang'.
The mainstream media has consistently argued that such attitudes reflect not reality but an exaggerated perception of police racism and brutality among black people. But a watershed of police scandals which racked police departments in nearly every major city over the last few months has shown that the lawless gangs known as the police, steeped in racism and mired in corruption, are the rule rather than the exception across the US.
The Fuhrman tapes have become known in Los Angeles as 'the soundtrack' for the videotaped beating of Rodney Glen King, which touched off the 1992 LA rebellion. In the tapes, during which Fuhrman, uses the term nigger, 41 times, he describes how he and fellow officers routinely stopped inter-racial couples on false pretexts.
Before the Fuhrman tapes were even played publicly, other police department scandals were unfolding. In Philadelphia six cops admitted that they planted evidence in order to arrest innocent people, mainly poor blacks. Then the cops robbed them of any watches or other valuables they had. Already 46 of their convictions have been overturned, and the number will probably climb much higher: federal officials are investigating as many as 100,000 arrests by Philadelphia police.
One of those victimised by the Philadelphia police is a 54 year old grandmother, Betty Patterson, known to neighbours as a pillar of the community. Three cops admitted they illegally searched her home and one admitted planting cocaine. Based on the planted evidence, she was sentenced to three years in prison for selling cocaine. In another case a former Philadelphia police sergeant was quoted as asking motorists, 'What is it worth to you not to go to jail tonight?'
In still another scandal, the head of the Philadelphia Police Department's racial sensitivity unit was removed after he made a racial slur to a black police officer, telling him, 'You're sweating like a nigger.' In New Orleans more than 50 police have been arrested, indicted or convicted during the last two years on charges including rape, aggravated battery, drug trafficking and murder. According to official federal estimates, which are quite low, 10 to 15 percent of New Orleans cops have engaged in criminal behaviour. One of these cops, Len Davis, ordered the murder of a woman who filed a police brutality claim against him. He was heard making arrangements with a hitman and yelling, 'Get that whore!' minutes before Kim Groves, a 32 year old mother of two, was shot to death in her front yard.
In another murder, a woman police officer was in the process of robbing a small Vietnamese restaurant when she shot the owners' son and daughter, aged 19 and 24, along with a security guard--who happened to be an off duty New Orleans cop. She shot the siblings execution style while they knelt on the floor and prayed for mercy. The same woman police officer returned to the restaurant minutes later to investigate the murders after the bodies were discovered.
For most of the last 20 years New Orleans police have ranked first in police brutality complaints. Yet the complaints have nearly always been rejected as being without merit. In the last three years, the New Orleans Police Department did not issue a single unsatisfactory personnel evaluation against one of its police officers.
In New York 50 cops have been arrested since March 1994 in Harlem and the Bronx after it was discovered that gangs of cops were robbing poor people's apartments and dealing in drugs.
The NYPD's image wasn't improved when a few months ago dozens of cops went on a three day drunken rampage through seven hotels in Washington DC while celebrating National Police Week. During their drinking spree they disrobed and poured beer down escalator railings, then slid down while other hotel guests looked on aghast. They groped at women trying to pass by, threw food and even fired their guns out of hotel windows.
A group of six Atlanta cops were indicted last month for stealing from those they arrested and for forcing citizens to pay for police protection. An off duty Chicago cop shot and killed an unarmed homeless black man, Joseph Gould, after Gould offered to clean his windshield. The cop faces no criminal charges for the murder--in fact, he's still patrolling the streets of Chicago.
Even federal law enforcement officials were embarrassed last spring when a video emerged showing its annual 'Good Ol' Boys Roundup', an all white celebration of racism attended by a range of law enforcement officials, including FBI agents. A sign read 'Nigger Checkpoint' and there were T-shirts featuring Martin Luther King's face behind a target.
Ever since the late 1960s, the call for law and order has been the battlecry of conservatives--with the Democrats joining the chorus. But crime has never been the real target. Behind the rhetoric has been' a sustained effort to beef up police powers over ordinary people. And it is the police, not 'criminals', who are increasingly out of control.