When NAACP officials polled the presidents of the group's 2,200 local branches in January about possible topics for workshops at this week's national convention in Los Angeles, a single issue emerged as the most pressing concern.
It was not the crack cocaine epidemic, not unemployment or teen-age pregnancy.
The civil rights leaders wanted to know what they could do about police brutality.
At Monday's workshop on "Confronting Problems of Police Misconduct," NAACP officials from New Jersey, North Carolina and other states said they receive complaints about police abuses almost every day.
The civil rights leaders said the incidents range from police officers taunting black arrestees with racial slurs, to the "body slamming" of suspects to the ground and the detention of young African-American men for the "crime" of "being out late at night with their friends."
"There's a war going on against black people," concluded Walter B. Brooks, president of the Ossining, N.Y., NAACP chapter.
Only one law enforcement official was on hand for the workshop--Capt. Maurice R. Moore, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Internal Affairs Division. He declined to comment on the actions of other departments, limiting himself to an explanation of how the LAPD processes citizen complaints.
Showing the 60 or so NAACP leaders gathered for the workshop a large blue copy of the Los Angeles Police Department training manual, Moore said, "We tell (our officers) to read it from cover to cover. And we hold them responsible for everything in it."
Others on the three-member panel offered workshop participants an hourlong primer on how to process police-abuse complaints and how to prepare for civil lawsuits against authorities.
Winston Kevin McKesson, a Los Angeles attorney who handles many cases of alleged police misconduct, said that after an instance of police abuse, victims should immediately file formal complaints with the law enforcement agency.
Another panelist, Frank Berry, spoke of his experience as president of the Long Beach NAACP chapter, which supported a city referendum to create an independent citizen's panel to monitor the Long Beach Police Department.
The referendum, which followed repeated allegations of misconduct by Long Beach officers, was approved by the voters in April.
Berry suggested that other NAACP chapters move to create police-review panels because "there are people in these (law enforcement) agencies who have less than good feelings for people in the black community."
As the workshop took a somewhat anti-police tone, NAACP attorney Nyisha Shakur sounded a conciliatory note.
"I think that all of us sitting in this room right now and all of us in this convention center agree that we need to have law enforcement," she said.
Indeed, one NAACP official said he believes the alleged increase in police abuse against blacks was an unfortunate byproduct of the war against drugs.
"Blacks and poor people are almost willing to give up their (civil) rights to get police protection, so the police can do almost anything they want," said Walter Marshall, 47, president of the Winston-Salem, N.C., branch.
To stop gang violence and drive-by shootings, he said, "blacks say the police are justified in any use of violence."
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