Few Protest Abuse, but Good Policing Is a Right of All

Cruz Reynoso is a retired California Supreme Court justice

Police across the nation are trained to serve and to help others. And they do so with great distinction. They protect our important civil right to safe neighborhoods. Yet, in my 40 years as a lawyer, professor, judge and government official, the civil rights violation I’ve most often heard is that of police abuse. Last month’s revelation that an LAPD officer confessed to the shooting and framing of an innocent man is one of the latest such local incidents. Can we make sense of all of this?

My recent experiences as vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights began to suggest what needs to be done. The California State Advisory Committee of the commission held an all-day hearing last year in response to concerns about police departments in several Sonoma County communities. As I heard witnesses, I was struck by two distinct sets of views. First, we heard from the officials. Uniformly, their reports were of a community in harmony with few problems of police abuse. The Sonoma County district attorney reported that his office had investigated every police-involved killing and found no criminality; the Santa Rosa police chief testified that the city’s surveys indicated that 82% to 85% of residents approved of their police department.

Then we heard from dozens of citizens. Countless witnesses, some speaking for themselves, most speaking for their religious or community groups, expressed deep concerns. It was as if there were two Santa Rosas and two Sonoma counties.


Change scenes but not, as it turns out, the substance. Recently, the commission held hearings in Manhattan. The recent brutal sodomizing of a New York City resident by a police officer had captured headlines. Again, I heard the mayor, the police commissioner and other top officials present a vigorous defense of the quality of police community relations in New York City. Police abuse, they testified, is rare and random. Once more, I heard innumerable residents, including well-known religious leaders, speak to the horrors that the people they represent have suffered at the hands of the local police.

These hearings, I believe, begin to explain the phenomenon. Under our democratic system, public officials are elected by majority vote. They must respond to a majoritarian view. What incentive is there to examine deeply the afflictions of 15% or 18% who may suffer at the hands of the police? Not much. To respond to these few brings its own political risks, plus these few do not typically wield economic or political power. Nor do those who suffer abuse generally share the same social circles, color or linguistic background of elected officials.

There is no easy answer. What holds the diverse peoples of the United States together is a shared culture found in our Constitution. One basic principle is that public officials, though elected by 51% of the vote, have a responsibility to all residents, voters or not, citizens or not. The Constitution protects us all.

Public officials must truly get to know who it is they represent. It would not have been a shock to public officials that Rodney King was treated roughly, had those officials been close to the communities they represent. Based on my experience, I was neither shocked nor surprised.

The long-term, but challenging, answer is to create a culture, an expectation by all Americans, that public officials have the high moral and constitutional duty to represent all their constituents. Culture and expectations can change; this change would benefit all Americans.

The best response to police abuse is also long-term. A culture change must take place. I have no doubt that more than 99% of officers would not steal cocaine or frame an innocent man. However, upon hearing that a fellow officer might have been involved in abusive or criminal behavior, how many would act? The Rodney King incident is instructive. What bothered me deeply was that, during the beating, more than a dozen officers representing several police organizations were present. There was no personal admonition on a one-to-one basis, nor were there reports to superiors. There appears to be a police culture that accepts malfeasance. That culture must change.

Meanwhile, what do we do? Our democracy recognizes that governmental power must be tempered. I am encouraged that the LAPD has responded to the Raphael A. Perez incidents--12 officers relieved of duty and, importantly, one captain cited for failure to supervise. These, and the internal investigation, are steps toward changing the culture. More needs to be done.

We should have an office, independent of the district attorney, to investigate and prosecute police abuse. Our experience tells us that an elected prosecutor will act with reluctance, conscious of the political drawbacks. The commission made such a recommendation earlier this year as part of its report on the Los Angeles hearings. Will it work? I think so. Time and earnest enforcement will tell.