Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Failure of Local and Federal Prosecutors to Curb Police Brutality

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Failure of Local and Federal Prosecutors to Curb Police Brutality

Article excerpt


Excessive use of force by police officers undermines faith in the criminal justice system. Citizens expect those with badges and guns to follow the law as well as enforce it, but these two roles often come into conflict. Reporter Craig Horowitz recounted that one police officer justified his hitting a suspect in the stomach when the suspect tried to run away as being necessary to reestablish authority. (1) Another police officer is quoted as saying, "[i]f someone disses you, you take him in an alley and slap him. If it's known in the street you can be stepped on, you've got a problem." (2)

Police brutality is usually defined as any excessive use of force by a police officer under color of law. (3) Police chiefs from ten major cities have agreed that the "problem of excessive force in American policing is real," rather than a rare occurrence. (4) Not only does police brutality perpetuate the notion that street justice is acceptable, but also victims are unlikely to develop respect for the law when officers abuse their lawful authority. Instead, justice requires that police officers refrain from acting like street thugs, even if they are "dissed."

Although police departments across the country have attempted to ameliorate the hostility between police officers and the community, through careful screening of applicants, minority recruitment, and community policing, police brutality remains a problem within our urban cities. Often the victims of police brutality are minorities stereotyped by the public as criminals in order to justify the reaction of white police officers. (5) As a result, police brutality deepens the racial divide in this country, and sparks riots within major cities. (6) If we revere the principle of equal protection for all, then police officers cannot stand above the law, especially when the racial dynamics of police brutality are considered. (7)

The criminal, a marginalized member of society, is in many ways the perfect victim for police brutality because of her so-called "lack of innocence." The law, however, is meant to protect every individual. If prosecutors are to uphold their roles as ministers of justice, they must investigate and prosecute all police officers accused of wrongdoing. Policing the police is essential to building public trust in government and legitimating the rules of our society. Otherwise, communities, especially those of color, become fearful of the police and understandably fail to cooperate in stopping crime. (8)

Besides hindering law enforcement, police brutality may also lead to police corruption. The Mollen Commission, for example, found that "[o]nce the line was crossed without consequences, it was easier [for officers] to abuse their authority in other ways, including corruption." (9)

Currently, there are no guidelines for determining when local or state prosecutors should take police brutality cases and when the federal government should handle them. Often cases are accepted on an ad hoc basis. In the Abner Louima case, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Zachary Carter, agreed that they would "sit down and decide where the case will best be prosecuted" (10) after the federal grand jury had completed its investigation. Ultimately, federal prosecutors handled the case, conducted three separate trials, and successfully obtained convictions against two police officers. (11) This Essay will suggest that federal prosecutors will be more successful in deterring police violence if they devote their resources to pattern-of-practice lawsuits against police departments, instead of handling individual cases.

This Essay will first argue that police brutality is largely ignored. Second, it will examine the obstacles facing local and federal prosecutors in obtaining convictions. Then it will compare the advantages and disadvantages of delegating primary responsibility for these cases to the state versus the federal level. …

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