Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Police Force Goes Too Far

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Police Force Goes Too Far

Article excerpt

ABOVE THE LAW: POLICE AND THE EXCESSIVE USE OF FORCE By Jerome Skolnick and James J. Fyfe, Free Press, 313 pp., $24.95.


ANYONE disturbed by the law-enforcement tactics employed against Rodney King or the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas, will find absorbing reading in "Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force."

The 1991 videotaped beating of Mr. King by four Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase impelled authors Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe to examine the causes, conducive conditions, and the remedies for excessive force.

"Somewhere deep in the American experience," Skolnick and Fyfe write, "is the idea that the legal order and its system of punishment are inadequate to cope with the problem, whether defined as crime, as immigrants, or as minority groups."

Fear of these things can provoke a reflexive use of excessive force, as the authors demonstrate with examples ranging from frontier vigilante justice to Southern lynchings to Northern race riots to contemporary events, when police assume the role of antidrug warriors in a dangerous urban environment.

The authors, one a former policeman, draw a distinction between unnecessary force and brutality. The first can be an honest mistake correctable by better training. "Hasty cops who force confrontations" is an example of police error that brings the Waco standoff to mind.

Brutality, in contrast, "is employed to control a population thought to be undesirable, undeserving, and underpunished by established law ... to achieve a fantasized social order," they write. Police brutality is often an individual act the perpetrator tries to conceal.

But when four L.A. policemen can strike 56 times in two minutes while 10 other officers look on, as occurred in the King case, that "reveals a deviant organizational culture that must be changed," they write. …

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