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Police Brutality: A Moving Target

POSTED: August 19, 2014, 6:00 am

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Five months after the Los Angeles police beating of Black motorist Rodney King, on the opposite coast a special public hearing on police brutality was held by the New Jersey NAACP at its annual convention. I chaired the day- long session on Saturday September 28 1991 as part of my duties as the organization’s political director. The hearing was convened against the backdrop of several incidents of police violence in the state, including the killing a year earlier of a 15 year-old Black teenager, Phillip Pannell, in suburban Teaneck. At a minimum, Keith Jones, the state NAACP president at the time, thought we could begin to not only expose incidences of police violence but bring stakeholders to the table to develop strategies to combat these offenses. We also hoped to convince the governor, Jim Florio, to take action on the practice of racial profiling that was becoming evident on the state’s highways. He did take some action, issuing an executive order against the practice.

In the days since the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that hearing in Asbury Park has been on my mind. It was a thoughtful and well intentioned effort to bring together a diverse collection of civic leaders to contemplate how we could reduce police brutality. We had the participation of Jay Fahy, the Bergen County prosecutor who exhibited courage during the Pannell tragedy, respected Newark community activist Larry Hamm, the emerging Rev. Al Sharpton and super attorney Ted Wells, who was serving as NJ NAACP special counsel and is more recently noted for his work sorting out the NFL Miami Dolphins controversy involving gay bashing of a player. There was also a collection of individuals with claims of being harassed by the police, clergy and grassroots activists engaged in communities throughout the state.

What I learned from chairing the hearing was that police brutality is a moving target. In New Jersey, like most states, the governor and attorney general exercise very little day-to-day control over local police departments. There are exceptions as I learned in Teaneck. In that case after it was discovered that the first autopsy of Phillip Pannell was botched, the New Jersey Attorney General Bob Del Tufo ordered the unprecedented convening of a second grand jury. Del Tufo did so with the full support of Governor Jim Florio. Upon the revelation that Pannell had been shot in the back with his arms raised in surrender the grand jury indicted Officer Gary Spath but he would later be acquitted by an all-white jury.

Most county prosecutors or district attorneys are hesitant to prosecute within the law enforcement community and choose the path of least resistance in confronting police wrongdoing. Jay Fahy was an exception and quite the exception. During the Pannell tragedy he exhibited strong moral leadership and never wavered in his stance that police are not above the law. In the course of that hearing the insular nature of local police departments was also evident and the sovereignty of local police chiefs made apparent. For the community, protest is the most reasonable vehicle to express dissatisfaction with policing because most local police departments are protected by civil service rules and chiefs have the political protection of mostly white elected officials. In other words, police brutality is a multi-headed beast that cannot be slayed easily.

What is playing out in Ferguson is exceptional for the engagement of state and federal officials so quickly. Perhaps that is the true benefit of social media. It prompts a faster response from authorities who are sensitive to the news cycle. The intervention of Governor Jay Nixon and the attention of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder defy the normal response. What is par for the course is the closing of the ranks of local police, as we witnessed in New York City following the death of Eric Garner and are seeing emerge in Ferguson. It’s not just a closing of the ranks; it is the evasion of accountability. Offending officers are routinely granted time before being made to give a statement, allowing for a defensive narrative to be constructed. The respite also allows the police propaganda machinery to kick into high gear and engage in character assassination of the victim. The offending officer is seldom arrested and usually put on a paid hiatus, and in most cases that make it to trial the officer is acquitted.

It is the local nature of law enforcement that is the biggest barrier to mitigating police brutality. Local citizen oversight must either be legally enhanced or local authority significantly diminished if we are to make headway against police brutality. The Black community of Ferguson stands little chance in reforming the city’s police department if its authority is not altered in some significant way, perhaps with the appointment of a civilian police director or a federal monitor, or both. While protests are necessary and must continue in Ferguson, there must be a focus on the structural aspects of police authority and measures to facilitate better civilian control.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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