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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Police Misconduct On The Rise

The USA Today has an article citing a 25% rise in cases of police misconduct since 9/11 and a subsequent increased number of prosecutions with the disclaimer that only 2-4% of civil rights abuse cases are actually followed up on.

Let me rephrase a key point, 96% of police abuse cases were declined for prosecution in the US last year, 98% of rights violation cases were declined the year before. This means that a vast number of confirmed rights violations go unpunished and unresolved, which encourages corrupt officers to be even more brazed about abusing citizens... hence the rise in misconduct cases.

Now, the rise of police brutality and rights violations on detainees can is attributed to 9/11 in the article, and this is somewhat correct in that there is a tie there. Simply for the fact that the public is less concerned with their civil rights than they used to be, they've traded their rights for a feeling of security by being permissive towards the abuse of detainees who have been accused of having terrorist links. More than this, the traditional defenders of human rights in the US have turned their efforts towards Guantanamo and Iraq so they have given up on the American victims of rights abuses.

The police have picked up on this shift and have been emboldened to cut corners and ignore rules regarding the rights of detainees. We've seen it here in Seattle with the arguments by King County government officials stating that detainees in the King County Jail have no rights to protect after several have died in custody, have been sexually assaulted by guards, or have been severely beaten and denied medical treatment as a form of punishment. Because detainees in Guantanamo have no rights, the argument goes, this then holds true for detainees in Seattle, apparently.

Unfortunately, governmental and NGO civil rights groups have been strained thin, either by a shift of focus towards terrorist-related security efforts that draw officers from the civil rights enforcement arm of the DOJ or by the shifting focus on anti-terror efforts by groups like the ACLU of Washington, who are now too distracted by such issues to do or even make a statement about high profile police misconduct or prisoner abuse cases here in Seattle... and the public has been fairly silent as well because of that willingness to sacrifice liberty for a sense of security.

Prosecutors in the USA Today story cite the difficulties associated with prosecuting police officers when the abuse citizens for the low prosecution rates against the police and jails that violate detainee rights. I agree that this is mostly true since citizens are trained to always trust the police and take their word for things over the word of a person who stands accused.

However, there is more to the story. Because the public is unconcerned about rights issues in the US, either due to being more concerned about Guantanamo detainees or because they feel security is more important than their civil rights, there is little real political incentive to prosecute the police when they harm citizens. After all, the office of prosecutor is an elected position in the US, and nobody runs on a "tough on police misconduct" platform, only "tough on the accused" platforms.

This is, ultimately, why so few obvious cases of police brutality go to trial and why we have seen a massive rise in cases of police brutality in the US and right here in Seattle. Not just that the police and other institutions do such a good job of covering for bad officers, but also because the public and elected officials are largely disinterested in human rights issues that occur right in their own back yard.

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