Consider the following situations where civilians driving to work or to the store are stopped by police “on suspicion”: having a burned-out tail light; driving a car that seems too old or too new for them; being in a high crime neighborhood; appearing to be out of place in a suburban neighborhood. In addition, we have heard about neighborhood searches in the name of “war on drugs.” In these instances, police can search a person’s car, home or self simply for living in or passing through the targeted neighborhood. Police may use tear gas or stun grenades and massive gunfire on private homes. Consequently, civilians may suffer disrespect, humiliation, arrests without charges and sometimes injuries or death.
Six months of data collected by the Minneapolis police show that, while African-Americans constitute approximately 14 % of the population, they are 60 % of those arrested. In 12 categories analyzed by the Minneapolis Star Tribune,African-Americans were arrested and jailed at much higher rates than whites. Especially telling are those crimes involving police discretion, such as “lurking with intent.” African-Americans are 27 times more likely to be arrested on this charge than whites, although conviction rates for African-Americans and whites are virtually identical (12 and 13%, respectively). In addition, unarmed people, such as the mentally ill, have been killed by multiple gunshots by police.
Other situations in which police and other crime fighting organizations have abused their authority include protests. Police have functioned to suppress First Amendment rights of public assembly and protest. The use of pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and other assault weapons on nonviolent protesters, legal observers and journalists is a disturbing trend. Recently, there have been a number of pre-emptive arrests of organizers on phony charges to prevent protests from happening at all.
What resources do citizens have when police act unjustly? Police agencies have Internal Affair Units (IAU). However, these units handle only the most egregious incidents. Minneapolis has a Civilian Review Authority (CRA), but it is without investigative resources or subpoena power. It can only make recommendations to the chief of police and cannot discipline officers. The mayor and police chief hand-pick members of the CRA. The State Human Rights Commission specifically exempts police from being cited for civil rights violations. The U.S. Justice Department rarely investigates local police departments.
Civilians have filed lawsuits for their injuries or on behalf of a relative killed by police and have won occasionally substantial judgements. Most people, however, do not have the resources to pursue these actions, and most attorneys will not take such cases. Even successful lawsuits have not resulted in abusive officers being disciplined, fired or prosecuted for their conduct.
What you should do:
- Get involved in citizen activism.
- If you witness a possible unjust incident, do not interfere. Write down as much information about the officers and the event as you can.
- If the police stop you in a traffic incident, remain calm and keep your hands in view. If asked, you must provide your name, address and social security number. You must also provide your driver’s license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration. You are not required to give any further information, and you may say no if they ask to search your vehicle. Minneapolis and St. Paul police are required to give you their business card if they search your vehicle.
Police Brutality, Jill Nelson, ed., 2000
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Protecting Your Rights as Citizens
You don’t have to talk to the police, FBI agents or investigators. You do not have to talk to them on the street, if you’ve been arrested or if you’re in jail. Only a judge has the authority to order you to answer any questions.