Policing the Police
To the Editor:
In Tom Brooks’s excellent article, “New York’s Finest” [August], he reports that the New York Civil Liberties Union has endorsed Councilman Paul O’Dwyer’s proposal to create a New York City Director of Citizen Redress, patterned on Sweden’s Ombudsman. While Mr. Brooks is entirely correct, I want to make it clear that we also support the creation of an independent review board to consider complaints against the police. The two proposals do not seem to us to be mutually exclusive.
The Director of Citizen Redress would consider complaints against any public official. Since we live in an age of pervasive government administration and regulation, it seems to us extremely desirable to create such new checks upon bureaucratic excesses. However, if new checks are to be instituted, we believe it entirely appropriate to begin with the police, if only because we arm our police with a gun, a nightstick, and authority to use physical force. Mr. Brooks’s article describes why it is difficult to process complaints against the police. I want to add only one additional reason to his list.
Most complaints against the police involve incidents that occurred in connection with an arrest. The person who wants to make the complaint is, therefore, himself facing charges by the police. Routinely, he will be assigned counsel or will employ counsel who will sensibly advise his client that the client’s principal concern should be getting off on the charges he is facing. Counsel will warn (and if not, the complainant may be able to figure out himself) that a complaint lodged against the police will trigger an extraordinary effort to convict the complainant so as to undercut the basis for the complaint.
The net effect is to deter the filing of complaints. A principal argument for an independent review board is that it will encourage the filing of complaints which today are not filed, no matter how valid, because of the fear of reprisal through an extraordinary effort to obtain a conviction.
New York Civil Liberties Union
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . The civilian review board concept appears to have become an . . . obsession [which] serves only to delude people into thinking that the basic problem between the police and some of our citizens is “police brutality.” To the extent that police brutality does exist, however, is it the cause of the trouble or a result of it? . . .
To the average citizen, the real problem is protection against those who break the law, regardless of race, religion, or station. The minority groups themselves have more to gain by strict law enforcement than anyone else, for most crimes are committed against their members. . . . It is time that the civil-rights leaders exercised real leadership by emphasizing that . . . respect for the law is the best means of attaining their just goals. . . . If we tolerate disrespect for the law, the argument against the segregationists is diluted, for without the Constitution, . . . the Supreme Court decisions, . . . the Civil Rights laws, . . . we have no non-violent way of forcing people to respect equal rights for all. . . .
Mr. Brooks and others bemoan the fact that most charges against the police are dismissed by police review boards. This argument is offered as proof that an independent board is needed. But is it? Isn’t it more logical to assume that most charges of police brutality are dismissed because they are frivolous in nature and not justified by the facts? For example, . . . Mr. Brooks cites the case of Lt. Gilligan who is blamed for triggering the riots in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Why doesn’t Mr. Brooks mention the fact that some civil-rights leaders fanned the flames that erupted in the form of riots? Lt. Gilligan was cleared of wrongdoing by a Grand Jury made up of independent civilians, yet he is still being slandered. In view of this reaction to the Grand Jury’s findings, are we to believe that the existence of an independent review board would solve the problem? . . . Why doesn’t Mr. Brooks report that Lt. Gilligan was found to have acted in self defense? Does he think that he does the cause of civil rights any good when he condones disrespect for the judicial process by ignoring the Grand Jury’s findings? . . .
All I ask for is a clearer perspective. . . . Both sides must be made to understand that we will not tolerate law-breaking by either.
Brooklyn, New York