The Justice Department has agreed to settle a case with the city involving common police practices ruled to be unlawful and unjust. Negotiated by the Justice Department’s civil rights division, the settlement dictates that federal officers will now closely monitor the actions of the city’s police departments, following a December report which found that officers were quick to use unnecessary force, particularly in instances where black citizens and other minorities were involved.
The investigation was prompted by 2012 incident in which Cleveland police killed an African-American couple after mistaking their car backfiring for a gunshot; this led officers in a chase that culminated in 137 rounds of ammunition being pumped into the victims’ bodies.
Ironically, the investigation commenced prior to the shooting of 12-year-old Cleveland resident Tamir Rice that broke the Internet last November, when Rice was gunned down after police mistook the toy he was holding for a deadly weapon. But perhaps the strangest part of the government’s probe into Cleveland’s police force was their discovery that officers frequently employed a practice of pistol-whipping people over the head.
By now, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has made corrupt police tactics into something of a cliché, as the country becomes increasingly militarized. But Cleveland’s tendency to subdue suspects by basically whacking them over the head paints a broader picture of negligent police policies which we still know little about.
Though they don’t receive the same amount of attention on the Internet, these practices are contributing to America’s toxic police state, one that has become a direct threat to all of our civil liberties.
1) The use of “jump-outs”
Everyone knows about New York’s awful stop-and-frisk policy. But one even worse practice you might not be aware of is Washington, D.C.’s “jump-out” policy. For those unfamiliar, ThinkProgress’ Nicole Flatow is here to explain:
[A jump-out] is typically described as multiple officers patrolling in an unmarked car, who at some point see something suspicious, and jump out of the car at once on unsuspecting pedestrians, with the intent of catching them off guard. … In some of the most egregious descriptions, cops are alleged to have drawn their weapons to do so. In others, they will allegedly manhandle, shove, or slam the suspects, frisk the suspects, or aggressively question the suspects in a manner that makes it seem as if they have no choice but to answer.
While the bias in this policy may be sickening, it is also far from a surprise. The decriminalization of marijuana in Washington, D.C. passed in 2014 because of the racial profiling inherent in the city’s drug laws and policing; in D.C., black men were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
But what makes jump-outs especially egregious is that police aren’t required to document these incidents after they happen. And unlike stop-and-frisk, jump-outs are frequently used to target several different citizens at once. While stop-and-frisk at least gave citizens the ability to prepare for police interaction, jump-outs are defined by their very surprise element.
This means you could just be strolling along and minding your own business when out of nowhere, the police appear and attempt to scare you have to death. It goes beyond mere intimidation to outright psychological abuse.
2) Using cell phone records as evidence
The police have a complicated relationship with cell phones. A controversial device called the Stingray allows police departments to track suspects’ phones in order to secretly obtain information, but fortunately, many states are beginning to fight back against warrantless tracking, with Washington state announcing in May that they will put an end to the practice.
Elsewhere, the Supreme Court has ruled that a warrant must be obtained in order to search a person’s cell phone, but that decision doesn’t cover cell phone records, which can still be accessed without prior court approval.
This makes things especially tricky when police are looking into cold cases or older incidents. The inconsistencies in cell phone records made for frustrating listening in the case of Adnan Syed, who was made famous on the Internet by the megahit podcast Serial. Who made the call? It’s hard to say with so little information.
But Syed’s case is not the only one where cell phone records have proven to be tricky to pin down. In a piece for the New Yorker, the magazine’s Douglas Starr details the case of Lisa Marie Roberts from Portland, Ore., who served nine and a half years for a murder she didn’t commit based on shoddy information from her cell phone records. (That “evidence” was later overturned.)
How could something like this happen? Starr explains:
[I]f I’m making a cell-phone call from my couch and someone commits a murder in a bar half a mile away, my cell records may serve as corroborating evidence that I took part in the crime. That might be true if I’d claimed to be in another state at the time, but those records cannot place me next to the body. What they don’t show is the precise location of a cell phone. Yet prosecutors often present those records as if they were DNA.
Technology has been a blessing and a curse for modern policing, as new advances have made pinpointing crimes more efficient, even while violating your basic rights. But unlike the modern precision of Stingray devices—which are nothing if not skillful at spying on citizens—the use of cell records pushes the boundaries of civil liberties, while also being frequently inaccurate.
When it comes to cell phones, the tendency among American police departments has too often been to assume that the “easiest” solution is the best one.
3) The misuse of confidential informants
In the miserable failure that is the War on Drugs, the use confidential informants have been among the most overlooked aspects of the war’s many issues. Informants are pawns in a struggle which keeps police departments rich through arrest quotas, sentencing laws, and asset forfeiture. The police’s use of CIs is well-known to anyone who has turned into HBO’s The Wire, but the ongoing plight of these individuals is very real.
Informants are necessary to keep America’s police departments in business, but the ways in which they have been abused and mistreated continue to be ignored across the country.
As the New Yorker’s Sarah Stillman explains, “up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve” the use of confidential informants,” who provide an “inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers.” These informants aren’t subjected to the same departmental oversight as the rest of the office, and “their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.”
Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as fourteen or fifteen. Some operate through the haze of addiction; others… are enrolled in state-mandated treatment programs that prohibit their association with illegal drugs of any kind. Many have been given false assurances by the police, used without regard for their safety, and treated as disposable pawns of the criminal-justice system.
Amidst the 70-plus interviews Stillman conducted with people whose lives had been impacted by the police’s use of young informants, the most haunting included the tale of LeBron Gaither, recruited at age 16, who was called in to make one more drug deal even after he was forced to testify against a suspect in court. He was murdered, after being “tortured, beaten with a bat, shot with a pistol and a shotgun, run over by a car, and dragged by a chain through the woods.”
His family sued and won a wrongful death suit worth $168,000, but the award was vacated by the state court of appeals.
The death of Rachel Hoffman, a college graduate who was forced to work for the police department after selling pot to friends, led to the enactment of Rachel’s Law in Florida, the first major piece of legislation meant to protect informants. But as long as police across the country can keep telling minor drug offenders (most of whom are young minorities) that their choices are either to work for the department or go to jail, then confidential informants are likely to continue being abused.
The whole system adds to a culture which denounces “snitching” and makes people in urban neighborhoods wary of anyone who has had contact with the police by association. Efforts in some areas to encourage “collaborative policing,” where police work with communities to stop criminals, aim at reducing this stigma, though so far they show no signs of making people any less suspicious of the police or their informants.
The police are always going to rely on informants in order to do their jobs well, but to keep recruiting young people who have little choice in the matter but to do their dirty work is senseless and immoral. There has to be a better way for the police to go undercover, one in which so many lives won’t be so senselessly put at risk.
4) Encouraging false confessions
However, it isn’t just informants who police pressure into doing what they’re told—but nearly everyone who goes through the criminal justice system.
“In recent years, the use of DNA evidence has allowed experts to identify false confessions in unprecedented and disturbing numbers,” notes New York Magazine’s Robert Kolker. “In the past two decades, researchers have documented some 250 instances of false confessions, many resulting in life sentences and at least four in wrongful executions. … Researchers who study false confessions say the roots of the problem lie in the interrogation tactics themselves.”
The most common method of interrogating prisoners is generally the “Reid technique,” a methodical and psychologically intimidating process of convincing the interviewee of their guilt—in some cases, whether they’re guilty or not. These tactics particularly target youths and suspects with mental disabilities, who can be more easily coerced without proper surveillance in place to prevent manipulation by investigators.
“To prevent false confessions, interrogation critics say there’s a solution so simple that it’s remarkable it hasn’t happened already: videotaping every minute of every police interrogation,” writes Kolker. “Where the idea was once impractical, they note, the digital era changed that.”
While recording interrogations has become more common, the bigger issue here is that in a system where suspects are supposedly “innocent until proven guilty,” the police are so intent on forcing guilty confessions, even when all signs points to the contrary. This is yet another example which demonstrates that too often police are less interested in protecting and serving and more interested in locking and throwing away the key.
When we talk about police brutality, we have to focus on more than just shootings and look at the ways police attack people mentally and bureaucratically. American citizens shouldn’t have to change their behavior to get the police to protect them in the future. Instead, the police must change their policies if they ever expect us to trust them again.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at Heave Media, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.
Photo via bobaliciouslondon/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)