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The Global Costs of Police Brutality in the US
Published on Monday, May 28, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
The Global Costs of Police Brutality in the US
by Salim Muwakkil
 
As a nation, we've become rather blase about the issue of police brutality. Unless the incident triggers an explosion, as it did last month in Cincinnati, or involves extremes, like the 41-bullet slaying of Amadou Diallo in New York City, Americans are not likely to spend much time pondering the racial profile of police brutality.

That's a major mistake. Reactions to abusive police have provoked major urban riots. Commissions formed to investigate the causes of these disturbances have often found that police brutality, or perceived brutality, was a trigger.

Most of these commissions were announced with great fanfare and promise. They recommended we make a bold commitment to eliminate the racial disparities bequeathed to us by our racist past, and that we take serious steps to reform rogue police practices. Ultimately, of course, their recommendations were ignored.

Cincinnati Mayor Charles Luken announced that he, too, will form a commission to investigate the unrest that shook his city in April, following the police killing of an unarmed black man. It's likely that Luken's commission will reach conclusions that also will be ignored--until another explosion, that is.

The beat goes on until America is beaten down.

Charges of police brutality echo from virtually every American city with a significant black population, yet official America seems deaf to the din. Many African-American activists, on the other hand, are expressing fears that Cincinnati may be a distressing portent.

"We have to remember that almost every [racial] uprising in this country since 1965 has been caused by police misconduct," said the Rev. Paul Jakes Jr. Jakes is president of the Chicago-based Christian Council for Urban Affairs, and a consistent critic of abusive police. He is worried about the explosive potential of the increasingly rancorous relationship between cops and black youth. And he's not alone.

The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives recently released a report warning that many American cities are in danger of exploding into violence. "There are numerous cities throughout the nation in crisis--powder kegs waiting to be ignited by a single incident," noted the 33-page report, which was widely distributed to federal agencies and lawmakers during a May 3 conference on racial profiling in Washington, D.C.

It was the advent of the war on drugs that exacerbated the traditionally tense relationship between African-Americans and the police and resulted in historic numbers of African-Americans becoming entangled in the criminal justice system.

Study after study has confirmed the disparate treatment African-Americans receive in the criminal justice system. The most recent, released April 19 by Building Block For Youth, revealed African-Americans are 85.5 percent of youth automatically transferred to adult court for drug crimes in Illinois though they are just 15.5 percent of the state's youth population. This disparity is true, the study notes, despite the fact "white youth sell and use drugs at the same, or higher rates than youth of color."

These kinds of racial disparities have debilitating effects on the African-American community. As soldiers in the drug war, police departments are in the front line of this biased treatment. Some officers see black youth as the enemy, and in any war, the enemy eventually fights back.

Despite the serious dangers involved in this issue, few in national leadership seem concerned. There is a growing concern elsewhere, however. The international human-rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have authored studies that severely condemn some police practices in the U.S., particularly as they pertain to the treatment of racial minorities. The European Union also has become increasingly vocal in its condemnation of racial biases in death-penalty cases.

This growing global interest also is prompting African-American activists to look outside the country for assistance in their struggle against biased policing. Several U.S. advocacy groups are preparing to present their case against police brutality at the upcoming UN World Conference Against Racism, to be held Aug. 31 to Sept.7 in Durban, South Africa.

Unfortunately, we need all the help we can get.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times

Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune

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