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Police torture, press silence

The brutal beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department was no isolated incident; the only unusual thing was that it was videotaped and so made headlines around the world. Christian Parenti reports from New York on the systematic police terror against black Americans that goes unreported

The scars on Andrew Wilson's chest and thighs were so bad that on 10 February 1993 Commander Jon Burge of the Chicago Police was found guilty of 'physical abuse'. Wilson had been accused of killing a cop. After beating, smothering and performing a mock execution on him, Burge and his men handcuffed Wilson face-first to a hot radiator and applied electric shocks to his body.

Commander Burge's dismissal came only after 15 years and upwards of 60 allegations that he and his colleagues were torturing confessions from black suspects. Burge's two accomplices in the Wilson case, John Yucaitis and Patrick O'Hara, were both busted from detectives down to patrolmen.

Pinochet-style policing

The latest of Burge's victims to come forward was 13 year-old Marcus Wiggins. Wiggins, who had no previous record, was caught in a police dragnet following what was reported to be a gang-related murder. Once in the custody of Commander Burge, Wiggins was beaten and tortured with electric shocks. After several hours the youth confessed to murder. Wiggins has since recanted, yet may still waste away his youth in a criminal finishing school, even though his confession was conjured forth with Pinochet-style encouragements.

Despite the fact that Commander Burge, one of the top cops in Chicago, was found guilty of bona fide torture, this case was hardly picked up by the national media. The only paper to give prominent coverage to the last act of the Burge story was the Chicago Sun-Times. The Chicago Tribune (Chicago's paper of record) offered a cursory mention on page seven. The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio and even progressive Pacifica Radio were silent. Though some of these sources may have covered the initial allegations, only local papers caught the finale, and so brought the story from the realm of 'accusations' to fact.

This lack of interest in one of the most horrendous cases of police terror ever proven is unfortunate but not surprising. Given the increasingly important role played by police in the day-to-day maintenance of the American status quo, it makes sense that those benefiting from present social arrangements - that includes the owners of most media outlets - would not rake about in the muck left by the forces of law and order.

'Rogue cops' like Commander Burge are not aberrations, but rather main characters in the torrid drama of America's 'urban crisis'. After all, last autumn in New York City, 10 000 armed and drunken off-duty police officers rioted at city hall, insulting the mayor and a city councilwoman with racist epithets and impunity.

A footnote

All too often police brutality of this sort is reported as a metro-section footnote to the war on crime. Never does the mainstream media draw links between the nature of police work and the oppressive nature of the larger society. Articles about police abuse tend to focus on the particulars of specific cases. Very rarely does the press connect these individual cases of 'misconduct' to the general epidemic of police abuse.

The fact is that abuse is built into the very core of police work, and this is reflected in the attitude of many cops. As one San Francisco police officer told me, his job consisted of 'cleaning up garbage'. With such a contemptuous view of the public it is no surprise that brutality is routine and terror a favoured tactic.

The cover-up of police brutality does not start with silence in the press, but rather with the structure of policing. In New York City cops are given a 48-hour 'cooling off' period before filing reports about violent altercations. This allows the officers two days to coordinate their stories and build their alibis against any charges of abuse.

Even when victims of police brutality are courageous and organised enough to file charges, the paperwork is often lost, left incomplete or otherwise botched by police officials, with the effect of protecting their colleagues.

Take for example the case of Rodney King. After the infamous beating in Los Angeles, both King's brother and George Holliday, the man who videotaped the police assault on King, tried to file complaints at the Foothill police station. Both times the paperwork was fumbled by the cops. The station sergeant, who personally received the complaint from King's brother, reported in the station log that 'no investigation was necessary'. Cases similar to this are so numerous, and so under-reported that when they do make the press they have an air of absurdity about them.

Often there is police cover-up even in cases of negligence. For example in 1991 political activist Victor Vasquez was being held in San Francisco's North station. Victor's cellmate, a homeless African-American man, attempted to hang himself from the cell door. When police responded to Vasquez shouting for help they slid the cell door open with such force that the hanging man broke his neck.

A day or two later when Vasquez was released from jail, he enquired after the man whose name he did not know. The sergeant on duty during the night of the 'accident' denied that such an event had occurred, telling Vasquez he was 'crazy'. It was only with the help of lawyers that Vasquez was finally able to locate the injured man, in the bowels of a public hospital.

Blank stare from TV

That sort of brutality and neglect followed by a cover-up happens all the time. It is the first tier in a colossal wall of denial about police cruelty. The final tier being complicit silence in the national press and a blank stare from the cathode-ray scribe of history - television.

Many city governments help to perpetuate the denial of police terror. They will pay-off the victims of police abuse who sue for damages, so as to keep them quiet. Yet they do not use the evidence collected in these civil suits against the offending officers on their police forces.

Amnesty International's 1991 report on the Los Angeles Police Department was based entirely on investigating brutality cases that had been prosecuted by suits in civil court. According to the report, of the more than 60 cases investigated 'virtually none' had been prosecuted in a state criminal court. In other words, police officers are routinely found guilty of abuse in civil suits, yet never face criminal charges or even internal discipline. The American press has almost nothing to say about this.

Three of the four officers in the King case were repeat offenders, having faced abuse charges in the past; one officer had even been suspended for 60 days. The fourth, Officer Wind, was a rookie and still learning the ropes as it were.

$44m pay-off

According to Citizens' Alert, a Chicago-based police accountability group, and reports in the Chicago press, a similar dynamic exists in that city. Chicago mayor Richard Daley has just requested a tax hike amounting to $28.7m, $11.6m of which is for police pay rises. Yet in the past five years Chicago has spent $27.69m as a result of lawsuits filed by alleged victims of police abuse. So while the taxpayers pick up the tab for police brutality, the city rewards the perpetrators.

New York has the same problem. According to the Village Voice, a report by New York City comptroller Liz Holtzman shows that from 1987 to 1991 New York City paid $44m in damages to the victims of police abuse. The New York Police Department won't comment on the fate of officers involved in these civil cases, but all evidence indicates that most officers went unpunished. Furthermore most police accountability groups believe that civil suits are just the tip of the iceberg, representing perhaps only 10 per cent of all police brutality.

It is high time the national media started to examine the scope and horror of police violence and torture in America.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993



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