Policing the Police

An investigation into complaints about police use of excessive force confirms what many citizens already believe: Cops cover for cops

Under ideal circumstances, state attorney's offices function as checks on police abuse. Not only do they prosecute errant officers, but victims who are uncomfortable reporting their complaints to an internal affairs unit can go directly to state prosecutors. State attorney investigators, however, are rarely assigned to look into allegations of excessive use of force, an expression of confidence in the thoroughness of internal affairs investigators. Ordinarily, says Centorino, the State Attorney's Office refers back to internal affairs those complaints it receives directly from the public.

Victims who would prefer to avoid the internal affairs section have little recourse. Theoretically, they can turn to the Federal Bureau of Investigations and hope that the Justice Department will pursue allegations of civil rights violations in federal court. In practice, that only occasionally happens. Nationwide, U.S. attorney's offices filed only seven such cases in fiscal year 1995. The overwhelming majority of complaints about police treatment thus defaults to internal affairs units and to investigators who are themselves police officers.

The arrangement does not foster public confidence. One example: Kelly Hyler, a 21-year-old model, says she was handcuffed and thrown to the ground by three Miami Beach police officers last November after a friend got into an argument with a bouncer outside a nightclub on Washington Avenue in South Beach.

"I have a scar on my shoulder and my knees are scarred for life," she recounts. "They threw me while I was in handcuffs, otherwise I would have stopped myself [from falling] with my hand. They kept me on the sidewalk for two hours." The officers charged Hyler with resisting arrest without violence, disorderly conduct, and disorderly intoxication. She pleaded not guilty, and this past summer the charges were dropped.

Hyler says she considered filing a complaint but decided against it. "They have this real corrupt thing going on down there, and I'd love to bust it wide open, but I just don't have the energy and the drive," Hyler says from South Carolina, where her parents live. "I'm not the type of person to go after them, but I think that this [police abuse] is a problem in Miami, and it's just going to keep happening." After the incident, Hyler moved back home.

Over the past several years, numerous Dade County residents have contacted New Times with anecdotal accounts of mistreatment at the hands of police officers. Only a fraction of those have resulted in published articles. But in an effort to quantify the problem and to evaluate police response to accusations of abusive treatment (also referred to as excessive use of force), New Times examined internal affairs records for seven Dade police departments dating back to 1991. Out of a total 795 complaints, only 1.6 percent were sustained. (The seven departments were Metro-Dade, Miami, Miami Beach, Hialeah, Coral Gables, North Miami, and Homestead -- which employ 65 percent of all sworn officers in Dade County.)

The significance of Dade's 1.6 percent figure is a matter of some debate. James Green, the legal-panel chair for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says the number supports the ACLU's belief that channels for dealing with allegations of police misconduct are inadequate.

But according to Sam Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert in civilian review of police, drawing appropriate conclusions is not so easy. "The official numbers on sustained complaints are tricky," Walker observes. "In some cases they mean the opposite of what they appear to mean." Rather than indicating a problem with the way excessive-force complaints are investigated in Dade County, the low sustained figure may simply mean that departments have been successful in persuading the public to utilize the process, thus generating a large number of frivolous or hard-to-prove complaints.

Nevertheless, Walker concedes that Dade's numbers appear to be unusually low. He cites a 1993 study by the Police Foundation, a nonprofit, Washington D.C.-based think tank, which found that municipal police departments nationwide sustain 10.4 percent of all excessive-force complaints they receive.

Sheldon Greenberg, director of Johns Hopkins University's Police Executive Leadership Program and a member of the Justice Department's working group on police integrity, agrees that statistics alone don't accurately reflect how a department is handling complaints.

More important, he asserts, are the quality of the investigations, the extent to which the public is encouraged to make complaints, the ease with which they can make complaints, whether the complaints are taken seriously by internal affairs units, and whether a department has a method for tracking repeated complaints against a particular officer regardless of whether they are sustained.

In order to address those factors, New Times scrutinized more than 175 individual internal affairs investigations from 1991 to 1996. Overall the investigations were professionally conducted, though some departments -- Metro-Dade in particular -- were more thorough than others in tracking down witnesses and documenting each step of the process. Metro-Dade routinely canvassed neighborhoods searching for witnesses, going so far as to dispatch investigators to a neighborhood or an intersection in the middle of the night to hunt for onlookers who might frequent the area at that time.

Since the early Eighties, Metro-Dade has housed its internal affairs unit, known as the professional compliance bureau, in a separate building several miles from police headquarters. Metro Deputy Director G.T. Arnold says the department wants to make it easy for an officer to provide information about a colleague whose behavior is out of line without that officer being blackballed as a snitch. In addition, Metro-Dade believes that separate locations help to alleviate civilian complainants' feelings of intimidation.

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