CovertAction Quarterly
Issue #55


We have to remember the original mindset of policing in this country: to protect the haves from the have-nots, says Ron Hampton, 23-year veteran of the Washington, D.C., Police Department. And in America, whites, especially affluent white males, have economic and political power to define criminal behavior and penalties, to set and control the police agenda, and to regulate and enforce discipline or not.

In the 1940s, when black police officers first broke racial barriers in all-white departments, they formed separate police groups to address their particular needs. A lot of our black police groups started out in secret, in somebody's basement, says Hampton, who is executive director of the National Black Police Association (NBPA). Not all of that has changed.

In the early 1970s, local black police groups came together to form a national alliance. The NBPA now includes over 130 local black police organizations, representing some 35,000 African American officers nationwide. (There are 600,000 police in the US.) Black officers had learned quickly that police unions rarely represent their points of view and interests, adamantly oppose affirmative action programs for minority and female officers, and fund legal defenses for the likes of Mark Fuhrman. We were always told that these issues would be handled democratically, says Hampton, but what union leaders meant was that the white majority ruled and we never had enough votes to overcome that.

Mary Powers, a longtime citizen activist in Chicago and a founder of the National Coalition on Police Accountability, sees African American police groups as allies. They've taken a beating. They face the same enemies we do. And the unions don't represent them. Here in Chicago they still had to pay dues to the regular police union whether they belonged or not and that practically devastated black officers here because they couldn't afford both dues.

Black officer groups have frequently, and successfully, sued to establish an opt out status, even when the union is a closed shop. Because of these suits, black officers in many jurisdictions pay only a token service fee. This fraction of the usual dues supports legitimate collective bargaining functions but does not contribute to such things as legal fees for rogue cops and the sabotaging of citizen review and affirmative action.

In fact, in stark contrast to the unions, black officer groups have enthusiastically backed citizen oversight. African Americans, notes Hampton, are the primary victims of police brutality, which must be confronted, controlled, and outlawed through citizen oversight. [The police] are public servants, he says, working in the public domain, and citizens have the right to complain and to be involved in oversight, to not be intimidated into silence.

And cops have a right to an equitable workplace. But both the exclusionary culture and the pattern of blatant racism that permeate US society as a whole are reflected in police departments. Because of the old boy network, black officers are routinely eliminated from informal competition for special assignments such as the motorcycle unit or highway patrol career enhancement assignments that can make or break an officer's career. In Los Angeles, the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, a 500-member black officers' group, sued the 7,700-member union, the Police Protective League, calling it a bastion of white supremacy and alleging discriminatory practices in training and promotions.

The one special assignment which black police officers are offered, and the one for which they are uniquely and ironically qualified can bring not only career enhancement, but death. Because of the predominant culture's criminal profile of black men, coupled with a well-documented police disregard for the civil rights and liberties of those who fit the profile, black undercover cops, particularly those posing as drug dealers, run a high risk of being shot, assaulted, or beaten by their white officer counterparts. Sometimes they are not given an opportunity to identify themselves; in other instances they are attacked after announcing that they too, are cops. In New York City alone, 23 African American officers have been shot by tragic mistake and 18 have been assaulted by fellow officers since 1941. According to Roger Abel, a retired NYPD detective who is writing a book on this subject, not one white officer has been shot by a black police officer.

I don't believe that any black officer should perform undercover duty until the system is reformed, says Eric Adams, chair of the Grand Council of Guardians, a black fraternal police group representing about 10,000 New York City officers.

Still, the great majority of police abuses are committed against civilians. The Mark Furhman tapes made blatant police racism and corruption undeniable, while scandals in New Orleans, Philadelphia and other cities pointed out the breadth of the problem. This pattern has prompted the Congressional Black Caucus to request an investigation into possible civil rights violations by police officers around the country. In September, the Caucus wrote Attorney General Janet Reno asking for an examination of not only specific allegations of violations but also of the culture's tolerance of racism and civil rights abuses. ... The recent revelations regarding the Los Angeles police department indicate that racism may be a cottage industry within a police department that routinely looks the other way while African Americans are framed and insulted with racial epithets. The letter decried the unacceptable double standard reflected in a Congress which responds to individual civil rights violations such as those against gun-toting white males like Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and white supremacist Randy Weaver but meets with deafening silence the revelations of racism and civil rights abuses in police departments.

If the Fuhrman tapes are any indication, it will be a long time before the code of silence is broken and police acknowledge and confront the connection between endemic racism and pervasive brutality.

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